Suppressing youth votes? An invitation to dialogue
Published: Monday, April 2, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 2, 2012 07:04
Since the 2010 election, seven states have passed new laws requiring people to show government−approved photo identification when they vote. Similar legislation was considered in 26 other states.
Proponents argue that citizens should have to prove who they are when they vote. They point to evidence that official state voter files are riddled with errors. For example, the Pew Center on the States found that almost two million deceased people are still on the state records.
Opponents, such as Rock the Vote, call the photo ID bills “voter suppression,” implying that the intent is to reduce turnout. They argue that there is no evidence that ineligible people knowingly attempt to vote (risking a felony conviction if they are caught). They note that substantial numbers of valid, registered voters lack photo identification. For example, according to a University of Wisconsin−Milwaukee study, 78 percent of Wisconsin’s African−American men between the ages of 18 and 24 do not have driver’s licenses. At the University of Wisconsin−Madison, 93 percent of dormitory residents lack licenses that show Madison as their home address — even though they have a right to vote in their college town.
The topic is a staple of talk radio and divides people on partisan lines. Except in Rhode Island, all the photo ID bills are backed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. The Justice Department has filed suit against the legislation in several states. Both sides are quick to presume strongly antidemocratic motives from their opponents — suppressing votes on one hand; inviting fraud on the other.
Stepping back from the immediate controversy about photo ID, it’s important to realize that the United States has the lowest turnout among the world’s developed democracies and one of the most cumbersome voting systems. Many states require citizens to register well in advance of an election and then vote within specific hours during one business day. If you move, it’s your responsibility to re−register. What consumer−oriented business would require you to sign up for its service months in advance and then appear in person at a particular location to obtain it?
Meanwhile, politicians determine how electoral districts are drawn and how elections are administered, including the location, number and type of voting machines. In most other democracies, an independent, nonpartisan national body is charged with designing and maintaining the voting system and maximizing access to the polls.
Even before the recent wave of photo ID bills, our election laws varied markedly. Nine states do not require pre−registration; you can register when you vote. (But Maine repealed that opportunity this year.) Many states allow people to vote before Election Day, either in person or by mail, but at least four states have shortened the time period for early voting since 2010. In Oregon, elections are conducted exclusively by mail.
These differences have consequences. A study conducted for the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College by Mary Fitzgerald found that youth turnout was, on average, 14 percentage points higher in states that allowed people to register on Election Day. Some states mail all registered voters a sample ballot. In another study for CIRCLE, Raymond Wolfinger and colleagues found that those mailings raise youth turnout by seven points.
Predictably, actual turnout varies widely from state to state. More than twice as high a proportion of young people voted in some states as others in 2008. Part of the reason is the difference in laws regarding voting.
The impact of the new photo ID laws is hard to predict with statistical precision, but it is already clear that our system is complicated, cumbersome, uneven and easy to tweak for partisan gain. Voters face a strange mix of seemingly onerous requirements in some states and rather radical experiments in others. For instance, the states that have decided to allow people to vote absentee by mail without an excuse are basically giving up on any effort to prove that the ostensible voter completed the ballot.
Although voting laws are controversial and divisive, comprehensive reforms might attract relatively broad support. For example, perhaps a requirement to show photo ID could be combined with a much easier system for registering and voting.
Other, and probably better, ideas would emerge if we recognized that the election system is unacceptable and legislatures are not even trying to encourage participation. We need a broad, public discussion of voting laws. At Tufts, that conversation will begin with an open panel on April 4 (12 p.m. in Barnum 008) sponsored by the national think tank NDN/New Policy Institute, Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts Roosevelt Institute, CIRCLE at Tisch College, the Institute for Political Citizenship, Tufts Democrats and Pi Sigma Alpha.
Peter Levine is the Director of Research and the Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College.