What to expect if S.C. voter ID law is upheld
BY GIBBS KNOTTS
In May 2011, South Carolina became one of a growing number of states to approve voter identification legislation. Passed largely along party lines, the law was hailed by Republicans as a way to combat voter fraud and decried by Democrats, particularly members of the Legislative Black Caucus, as a mechanism to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
While the legislation awaits further judicial review in September, it is a good time to step back from the partisan debates and legal wrangling to review the scholarly literature on voter identification laws. What can we expect if South Carolina’s new law takes effect later this year?
Given the importance of voting, there is a long history of studying voter turnout by political scientists. For example, in 1957 Anthony Downs developed a “calculus of voting” model where he argued, in part, that a potential voter would cast a ballot if the benefits of voting outweighed the costs of voting. Subsequent research identified specific costs of voting including the registration process, the time it takes to learn about the candidates, taking off work to cast a ballot, and even the distance a person must travel to the polling place.
Obtaining the proper identification will be a low-cost act for many South Carolinians — simply present a driver’s license at the polling place.
But, it could be much more costly for some of the state’s residents — potentially decreasing the likelihood the benefits will outweigh the costs of voting for these individuals.
One of the first studies to focus specifically on voter identification laws, a joint project by researchers at Cal Tech and MIT, provided mixed results. Looking across all 50 states, some with voter ID laws and some without, the researchers discovered no aggregate effect on turnout.
Applying these results to South Carolina, the overall turnout should not decline as a result of the new voter identification law.
However, using individual-level data, this group of researchers showed that less educated and lower-income populations were less likely to vote with stricter voter identification requirements. This result confirms the fears of some in South Carolina, but it is important to note that the Cal Tech/MIT study found that racial minorities were not significantly less likely to vote in the face of stricter voter identification laws.
A more recent study, by researchers at the University of Delaware and the University of Nebraska, demonstrated that voter ID laws have very little effect on turnout. Instead, they point to the macro-level factors that drive turnout, such as the number of issues on the ballot and the competitiveness of the campaign, as well as the individual-level factors like socioeconomic status and a person’s interest in politics.
Though the evidence suggests that voter-ID laws have a little effect on turnout, it is important to emphasize that South Carolina’s legislation is among the strictest. The new law requires that electors produce a valid photo ID whereas some states allow for a photo or non-photo ID.
In addition, some states allow electors without IDs to vote if they file an affidavit of identity. But the South Carolina legislation allows electors to file an affidavit only if they have a religious objection to being photographed or have “a reasonable impediment that prevents the elector from obtaining photographic identification.”
In sum, most scientific evidence suggests that the state’s voter-ID law will have little effect on voter turnout. Nevertheless, it is imperative that South Carolinians do everything possible to protect what legendary suffragist Susan B. Anthony called “a pivotal right.”
The state should not rush the implementation of the new voter-ID legislation and should put together a strong outreach campaign to ensure that all eligible votes have the proper identification to cast a ballot.
The health of our democracy depends on it.
Gibbs Knotts is department chair and professor of political science at the College of Charleston.