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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