Rich Lowry: The poll tax that wasn’t

By Rich Lowry

When the Supreme Court rejected a petition to stop a Texas voter-ID law from going into effect for the midterms, the left commenced its wailing and gnashing of teeth.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the law “purposely discriminatory,” and everyone piled in behind her with denunciations of the Lone Star State’s blatant racism.

For the left, voter ID is tantamount to a poll tax. If so, the nation is awash in neo-segregationist election rules. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report on voter-ID laws, 33 states now have them.

A valid ID is a necessity of modern life, and requiring one to vote hardly seems an undue imposition. Especially if you are willing to give one out gratis. Of the 17 states that have strict requirements for a photo or government-issued ID, the GAO notes, 16 provide a free ID to eligible voters.

The critics complain that people may not have the relevant underlying documents to get the free ID, and there is a cost to obtaining them.

Well, yes. In Indiana, for instance, it costs $10 to obtain a birth certificate. In Arkansas, it costs $12. In North Dakota, $7.

The GAO report focuses on the voter-ID states of Kansas and Tennessee, where voters whose eligibility to vote is in doubt may vote provisionally. Then they have a period after the election to establish their eligibility. How many voters are showing up to vote, only to be foiled by the ID requirement?

According to the GAO, in Kansas in 2012, 1,115,281 ballots were cast. There were 38,865 provisional ballots, and of these, 838 were cast for voter-ID reasons.

In Tennessee, 2,480,182 ballots were cast. There were 7,089 provisional ballots, and of these, 673 were cast for voter-ID reasons.

In both states, about 30 percent of these voter-ID-related provisional ballots were ultimately accepted. That means in Kansas and Tennessee, altogether about 1,000 ballots weren’t counted (and perhaps many of them for good reason) out of roughly 3.5 million cast. There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, voter suppression! It is of such stuff that Jim Crow was made.

Indeed, voter ID is a scheme to suppress minority votes so nefarious that its effect can’t reliably be detected by the tools of social science. As a study last December in Political Research Quarterly notes, the idea that voter ID suppresses minority turnout “is strongly suggested in political discourse but lacks a strong empirical basis.”

The analysis by the study’s authors concluded that “more stringent ID requirements for voting have no deterring effect on individual turnout across different racial and ethnic groups.”

For its part, the GAO used “a quasi-experimental analysis” to find that voter ID suppressed turnout in Kansas and Tennessee, and that the effect was larger among African-American voters, but not Asian-Americans or Hispanics. The states dispute the methodology.

Where you come down on this issue depends on whether you think it’s reasonable to require the minimal effort to establish your identity when voting.

The critics say that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare, although that is not an argument for leaving the system completely open to it. Is voting so important that it shouldn’t be tethered to an ID requirement? It takes an ID to buy a gun, a constitutional right. It takes an ID to get a marriage license or check into a hotel.

Voting is inevitably going to entail, even in the most latitudinarian system, some effort. You have to, at least most of the time, go to the polling place. You have to fill out the ballot correctly. You might have to deposit it in a box. Not all people will go to the trouble to do this, or to do it properly, which doesn’t mean they are disenfranchised.

The irony is that unhinged complaints about voter ID are, in this supposedly troubling new era of the poll tax, a turnout tool.


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