STUDY: Texas’s voter ID law confused registered voters, likely decided 2014 congressional race

In a paper released last week, political scientists at Rice University and the University of Houston contend that voter confusion over Texas’s voter ID law — the same one that was recently overturned by a federal court due to its discriminatory effects — could have have determined the outcome of last year’s election for Texas’s 23rd Congressional District.

As Professors Mark Jones, Jim Granato and Renée Cross outline, the law discouraged many registered voters in the district from voting, and those voters disproportionately favored Democratic candidate Pete Gallego. Gallego, the incumbent in the race, lost his re-election bid by less than 2,500 votes of 115,429 cast (roughly two percentage points) to Republican Will Hurd.

Jones, Granato and Cross surveyed 400 of the 271,005 registered voters who did not participate in the 2014 election, asking them why they didn’t cast ballots. Voters were asked first to indicate all of their reasons for not voting, and were then asked to select which one was the principal reason for not voting. 12.8% of respondents indicated that a lack of necessary ID was a reason for not voting, while 5.8% of respondents said that it was their principal reason for not voting.

Applying that percentage across the entire population of non-voters (insert necessary qualification about margins of error here), that’s nearly 16,000 registered voters in TX-23 who stayed home primarily due to a perceived lack of acceptable ID.

However, most of those perceptions were incorrect. When respondents were then given the list of which forms of ID were accepted at the polls, only 2.7% of respondents didn’t have any of them. What’s more, only one percent of respondents who cited lack of ID as a reason for not voting — and 0.5% of respondents who cited lack of ID as their primary reason for not voting — actually lacked an acceptable form of ID.

In other words, as the Jones, Granato and Cross wrote:

…most of the non-voters who stated they did not vote due principally or at least in part to the fact that they did not have one of the required forms of photo identification actually did possess at least one of the seven state-approved forms of photo ID…

…The most prominent impact of the legislation was that due entirely to a misunderstanding or a general lack of information of the photo identification requirements under the law, somewhere between one out of every 10 and one out of every 20 non-voters in CD-23 did not participate in the general election process in 2014.

As noted above, Texas’s voter ID law was recently invalidated by a federal court due to its discriminatory effects, which were no less present in this survey. While Latinos constituted roughly 66% of the district’s non-voting population, they constituted 77% of non-voters who cited a lack of proper ID as their primary reason for staying home.

Those voters also favored Gallego over Hurd by a whopping 54-9 margin — a margin large enough to have proven decisive if even roughly half of them had turned out to vote. Some quick back-of-the-envelope math based on the numbers in the study (again, margins of error excluded) finds that confusion over Texas’s voter ID law was the principal reason why 7089 would-be Gallego supporters and 1430 would-be Hurd supporters stayed home. Had they all turned out to vote, Gallego’s 2422-vote loss would have flipped to a 4667-vote win. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a swing of just under six percentage points. And again, that’s only including people who cited confusion over the law as the primary reason why they didn’t cast a ballot.

The major takeaway here is that the effects of voter ID laws aren’t just measured in people who lack the specific forms of ID required, as that assumes perfect voter education. In a state as bad at democracy as Texas, there’s no reason to make that assumption. In the words of the Jones, Granato and Cross, the state’s efforts to educate their electorate as to the law’s requirements were “suboptimal, at least.” So while less than three percent of Texas’s registered voters actually lacked necessary ID in order to vote, many voters who faced no actual legal barrier to ballot access thought they did, and were disenfranchised as a result.

This suggests, pace well-intentioned data journalists like Nate Cohn at The New York Times, that voter ID laws do in fact lower voter turnout in a meaningful way, and that the voters most likely to be affected can in fact be disproportionately likely to support a particular candidate.

It also suggests that the only reason voter ID laws aren’t tipping the scales in more elections is that so few of our elections are competitive to begin with. As noted in the paper, TX-23 was the only congressional seat in the state where both the Democratic and Republican candidates had realistic chances of winning in 2014; the rest of the state’s districts have been gerrymandered to the point at which Election Day was merely a formality. But if the true effect of photo ID laws is anywhere near the roughly six percentage point swing inferred from the case study in the Gallego-Hurd race, then such laws are unquestionably incompatible with competitive and representative democracy.

But we knew that already.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Carl Pietrantonio

    You can only do so much to help stupid tejanos that do not understand how things work here in the USA

  • They swiped my license. I brought proof that I lived at my current address but no one asked for it. The real confusion is finding the right polling place. The online guide was down most of that morning (maybe it crashed from too many hits?).

  • Indigo

    They used to do exactly that. My understanding is that fewer traditional polling places are keeping up the tradition. However, here in Flaw’d, it’s now reached the point where the registration card isn’t required. In fact, I’m not sure they issue them anymore. All you have to do is show up and produce your driver’s license / photo ID. That and a non-threatening smile and it doesn’t hurt to know at least one of the people working the poll and, of course, it’s only sensible to be white. Other than that . . .

  • I live here and I can attest that it is confusing. Oddly enough I, a middle aged white male, had no problem voting last year with a driver’s license showing an address from the other side of the state. I’m pretty sure someone with more melanin would have been denied. I also had a hard time figure out WHERE to vote. It was even worse in the primary (I went to the wrong place, and was misdirected twice and finally found the correct primary location). I can’t say my experience with that in NY was much better. There has to be a better way. Perhaps putting the polling place info ON the voter registration card they mail out?

  • I’ve been seeing more articles lately about the need to call out the mendacity and lies behind the asserted motives of these radical anti-American wingnuts.

    Suppressing any and all non-GOP voting is precisely the intent of not only the Voter ID laws, but all of the other measures being taken to reduce new voter registration, limit ballot access in Dem-leaning regions, disenfranchise and purge large numbers of otherwise eligible voters, and to gerrymander the hell out of the entire country so that a minority party can control everything.

    Exactly as the push for TRAP laws to regulate abortion out of existence under the lie of it being about ‘protecting women’s health,’ these voting laws are designed specifically to reduce voter participation…particularly and especially for those who aren’t Republicans.

  • Demosthenes

    An excellent piece, Mr. Green, on how Texas’s voter suppression law is operating exactly as that state’s GOP leadership intended.

  • Indigo

    Confusing the electorate was the idea, wasn’t it?

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