ON TUESDAY, Nov. 4, Americans go to the polls for midterm elections that will decide control of the US Senate, as well as a number of closely watched governor’s races. Voter turnout, which can be lower in nonpresidential election years, is critically important. So there’s ample reason for concern as Republican lawmakers aggressively expand their push to require identification at the polls. While Republicans contend that voter ID laws prevent fraud, a new nonpartisan governmental report offers stinging, unambiguous evidence that such laws suppress turnout.
The report, issued by the Government Accountability Office, compared Kansas and Tennessee, which enacted more restrictive laws between the 2008 and 2012 elections, with states that made no substantive changes in registration — Maine, Alabama, Arkansas, and Delaware. The GAO, in its scholarly caution, said that its study is not necessarily generalizable to the experience of other states. Yet the results shown in even this limited study are dismaying.
Kansas and Tennessee experienced significantly steeper drops in the number of voters who went to the polls than the four comparison states, the GAO found. The groups where turnout dropped the most came as no surprise: African-Americans, young voters, and recently registered voters. The GAO also noted drops in Hispanic and Asian-American turnout. In the 2012 presidential election, voting for Barack Obama dropped in the control states, as it did nationally, but nowhere by as steep a percentage as in Kansas and Tennessee.
Guidance coming from the courts has been confusing, and recent decisions by the US Supreme Court have been mixed. The justices allowed North Carolina and Ohio to go ahead with a ban on same-day registration and a curb on early voting, but recently blocked Wisconsin from implementing a voter ID law. The issue deserves a full airing in the nation’s highest court, to avoid a state-by-state effort to implement election laws that interfere with the right to vote.