One of the first bills the North Carolina General Assembly will enact next year, and that new Gov. Pat McCrory will sign, will establish a photo ID requirement to vote in North Carolina. It will pass quickly because it is uncontroversial.
Yes, I know that left-wing activists and the news media consider voter ID laws to be controversial. But the public doesn’t agree. Clear majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated respondents have consistently supported such identification requirements in public opinion polls. Back in August, for example, three-quarters of respondents in a Washington Post poll said they favored a policy that “required to show official, government-issued photo identification — such as a driver’s license — when they cast ballots.”
Few public policies enjoy such broad support. Popularity doesn’t make something true or wise, of course. But if something is overwhelmingly popular, it is odd to label it controversial, at least in a political sense.
Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that photo ID requirements do not violate equal protection or other constitutional provisions, as long as those who lack driver’s licenses are provided an alternative means of obtaining the necessary identification at public expense. The election-eve legal challenges to ID laws in several states succeeded only when plaintiffs argued that there wasn’t enough time to implement them properly before balloting — a problem that won’t affect policies adopted more than a year before the next General Election.
My own view is that a photo ID requirement, if administered properly, is a reasonable safeguard against the unlikely — but not unprecedented — event that certain kinds of voter fraud might tip the outcome of an election. To the extent that either proponents or opponents of voter ID predict it will have large-scale effects on voting, however, they are making unwarranted claims. There appears to be no empirical basis for them.
Keep in mind that while North Carolina has no requirement, many other states and countries do. Scholars have studied their effects on voting. Most have found nothing of consequence. In March 2011, for example, State Politics & Policy Quarterly published a study by Oakland University political scientists Roger Larocca and John Klemanski that examined several different election-law changes, including voter ID, same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting and early voting.
Using data from the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections, they found that same-day registration and no-excuse absentee balloting resulted in higher voter turnout, all other things being held equal. Early voting actually resulted in lower turnout, for reasons best explained and analyzed another day (I find them at least plausible). As for voter ID, the authors wrote, “we find no evidence to suggest that voter identification regulations are associated with lower turnout among any age cohort in any of our three elections.” If anything, there is a small positive effect on turnout.
Those on both sides of the issue ought to ponder the available research. If you think that requiring voters to show identification will disenfranchise large numbers of citizens who would otherwise cast legitimate ballots, the research findings are inconsistent with your thesis. However, if you think that requiring voters to show ID will deter large numbers of non-citizens or felons who would otherwise cast fraudulent ballots, the same research findings are inconsistent with your thesis, as well.
Realistically, voter ID requirements are an insurance policy against the possibility that an extremely close election might be stolen by voter fraud. Keep in mind that because we run so many federal, state, and local elections in North Carolina, “extremely close” elections are not exactly unheard of. In the 2012 cycle, only a few hundred votes separated victorious U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre from David Rouzer in the 7th District. A state Senate race was settled by two dozen votes.
The public overwhelmingly believes that taking out such an insurance policy makes sense. The governor and legislature are about to do it. Somehow I suspect the electoral system will survive the “controversy.”
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.