Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Voter ID - the 100:1 solution

Can a voter ID law depress turnout even if it isn't being enforced? The chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican party thinks so – and he seems fine with that.

Rob Gleason
ThinkProgress posted a snippet today of an interview with GOP Chairman Rob Gleason’s interview earlier this week on Pennsylvania Cable Network. In it, Gleason agrees that the furor over Pennsylvania’s voter ID law probably affected the 2012 election:

Gleason: “Think about it. We cut Obama by 5 percent, which was big. … He beat McCain by 10 percent. He only beat Romney by 5 percent, and I think probably voter ID helped a bit in that.”

As you may recall, voter ID was not enforced in the 2012 election, thanks to a court injunction. So what Gleason is describing so complacently is voters who stayed home based on a mistake. (A number of observers, by the way, thought the state’s publicity about the law in the runup to the election was deliberately confusing.)

I have no idea whether Gleason’s conjecture is correct, but let’s look at some numbers. Here are Pennsylvania’s official vote counts for the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections:

      Obama-Biden                         2,990,274
      Romney-Ryan                         2,680,434
      Total major-party votes:            5,670,708
      Margin of victory:                    309,840

      Obama-Biden                         3,276,363
      McCain-Palin                        2,665,885
      Total major-party votes:            5,932,248
      Margin of victory:                    620,478

In 2012, the two major parties’ nominees secured a total of 5,670,708 votes, and the Obama-Biden margin of victory was 309,840, or 5.4 percentage points. In 2008, the nominees secured 5,932,248 votes, and the Obama-Biden margin was 620,478, or 10.35 percentage points. So Gleason’s right on the facts.  
Now, I don’t know what Gleason means by “a bit,” but let’s suppose it’s around 5 percent – that is, that he thinks 5 percent of the difference between the two elections was due to voter ID. Obama’s margin of victory was wider by 310,638 votes in 2008 than in 2012 – 5 percent of 310,638 is 15,532.

In addition, total turnout for the two major parties was 261,540 votes lower in 2012. If 5 percent of that difference was due to voter ID, that’s 13,077 votes.

But here’s the thing: all of those people who (putatively) didn’t vote were entitled to. The voter ID law wasn't operative. So that's upward of 10,000 people (based on my 5-percent conjecture) erroneously foregoing their voting rights.

Of course, if any of them had planned to commit voter fraud, then they were rightly kept from the polls. But reliable estimates of the amount of in-person voter fraud – the only kind voter ID laws address – range from “nonexistent” to 0.0002 percent –  the number ThinkProgress cites. If 0.0002 of the voters in 2008 committed voter fraud, that works out to about – 118 voters.

Besides, if you're going to commit voter fraud, you're probably more likely than average to try to find out what the rules are, and not let a mistaken belief about ID requirements keep you at home. So the effect of an unenforced voter ID law would almost certainly be limited to depressing turnout among legitimate but confused voters.

Gleason’s tone of voice gives me no reason to think he’s disturbed by the 2012 outcome – quite the contrary. If so, and if my definition of "a bit" is anywhere near Gleason's, that means the head of the Pennsylvania GOP has no problem with discouraging well over 10,000 voters from voting in order to prevent, at most, a little more than 100 fraudulent votes. In other words, he’s fine with an overkill ratio of at least 100 to 1, caused (hypothetically, I want to stress) by a law that wasn’t even being enforced.

What will the ratio be if the law is enforced? Perhaps 1,000:1, if the plaintiffs challenging voter ID  in Commonwealth Court this week are correct. They estimate it will effectively disenfranchise “hundreds of thousands” of otherwise legal voters if it is fully enforced.

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