The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Recently on NPR’s Morning Edition I heard a report from Shankar Vedantam about a study of state legislators’ responses to requests for information about voter ID requirements.

These weren’t real requests. They were part of a “natural experiment” conducted by political scientists Matthew Mendez and Christian Grose. The results: If the fake name of the requestor sounded Latino (Santiago Rodriguez), it was less likely to be answered than if the name sounded Anglo (Jacob Smith).  

My first thought was about the dubious merits of taking the time of public servants for a natural experiment. (Thanks to my colleague, Karl Kurtz, for addressing a very similar study previously.)

My second thought was that voter ID reports are suddenly all the rage. Besides the report NPR highlighted ("Revealing Discriminatory Intent: Legislator Preferences, Voter Identification, and Responsiveness Bias"), I’ve come across three others recently.

Just last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released "Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws." The authors, program evaluators for the federal government, spent a year digging deep, deep down on some key questions:

In states with strict voter identification laws, what percentage of voters have the required ID? (The answer: 84 to 95 percent of voters have the required ID.)

If not, what are the direct costs for obtaining it? (Costs for obtaining an ID range from $14.50 to $58.50.)

And, what’s the impact on turnout from these laws? (Five studies the GAO reviewed showed no statistically significant change in voter turnout, four showed a downturn and one showed an uptick.)

The cost to voters of obtaining an ID was the sole focus of "The High Cost of 'Free' Photo Voter Identification Cards," from Harvard’s Richard Sobel. His numbers don’t jibe with the GAO’s: “This report finds that the expenses for documentation, travel, and waiting time are significant—especially for minority group and low-income voters—typically ranging from about $75 to $175. When legal fees are added to these numbers, the costs range as high as $1,500.”

As for turnout, "The Effects of Voter ID Notification on Voter Turnout: Results from a Large-Scale Field Experiment" by Jack Citrin, Donald P. Green, and Morris Levy looked at the impact of get-out-the-vote direct mail campaigns that directly addressed new and stricter voter ID requirements. Instead of putting a damper on turnout, the study shows that the mailings—especially those with details on how to obtain ID—increased turnout.

Here’s a snippet from the abstract: “Results indicate that informing low-propensity voters of a new identification requirement raises turnout by approximately one percentage point. Messages providing details about ID requirements and offering to help recipients obtain acceptable ID appear somewhat more effective than messages only pointing out the need to bring proof of identification.”

So where does that leave us? With the classic academic caveat: More research is warranted.

Wendy Underhill is program manager for elections at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.