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How Voter ID Laws Depressed Minority Turnout in 2012

Brenden Timpe

When Barack Obama won a second term in the White House in November 2012, many observers concluded that new voting ID laws hadn't had much effect on turnout. After all, the election had swung in Democrats’ favor, and young and minority voters comprised a larger share of the electorate than four years earlier. So identification requirements aren’t the threat to voting rights that many feared, right?

Wrong, says a new report from The Black Youth Project, an advocacy group for young African Americans. The report’s authors, Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago and Jon Rogowski of Washington University in St. Louis, used a national survey to track turnout among teenage and twenty-something voters. The results are compelling but not surprising.

On Election Day 2012, black and Latino voters were far more likely than their white counterparts to be asked for identification at the polls – even in states where ID is not required. In fact, nearly two-thirds of black youth and 55 percent of Latinos were asked for identification in states where it is not legally required to cast a ballot. Only 43 percent of young white voters were carded in these states.

This disturbing finding is all the more serious when you consider another disparity among racial categories. Cohen and Rogowski found that it is rare to come across a young white voter without a driver’s license or some other official form of identification. Not so among minority groups. For example, more than a quarter of African Americans and nearly one-third of Latinos lack a driver’s license. They are also much less likely than whites to have a birth certificate, passport, or college ID card.

For many of these individuals, voter ID laws are akin to disenfranchisement. The report outlines the predictable results – lack of ID was the second-most common reason black youth failed to vote. The authors write: "Black youth reported that the lack of required identification prevented them from voting at nearly four times the rate of white youth (17.3 percent compared with 4.7 percent)."

Incidentally, the most common reason among by all non-voters was lack of voter registration, a situation that could be easily remedied by adopting Same Day Registration.

“I think voter ID is what you need to get Sudafed in the stores, what you need to get on a plane, what you need to get many government services at this time,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory told the Raleigh News & Observer last week. “I think requiring an ID to vote is a common sense practice.”

This is a common refrain from advocates of voter ID laws. But the report from Cohen and Rogowski makes clear that this view is cruelly out of touch with the lives of a large cross-section of America. Voter ID advocates are tackling an imaginary problem, but their effect on the right to vote is all too real.