A Philosopher's Blog

Alabama & Voter ID

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2015

In 2011 Alabama passed a voter ID law that would go into effect in 2014. This sort of thing was usually subject to approval from the Justice Department, but the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Some regarded this as reasonable, since voting seemed to be going along reasonably well. This is the same sort of reasoning that indicates that a patient with diabetes should stop taking her insulin on the grounds that her disease is now under control.

Critics of voter ID laws, who are most often Democrats, contend that they are aimed at disenfranchising minorities and the poor. These are the people who generally tend to vote for Democrats. Proponents of voter ID laws, who are most often Republicans, contend that voter ID laws are critical for preventing voter fraud. Since I have written extensively on this matter before, I will simply note that the best evidence shows that voter ID laws do have a negative impact on poor and minority voters. I will also note that voter fraud does occur, but at an incredibly low rate.

Now that Alabama’s voter ID law is in effect, the state seems to have upped its game by stating that driver’s license examiners would no longer be working at thirty one offices in the state. As might be guessed, Alabama officials claim that this is the result of budget cuts and is not intended to make things harder for minority and poor voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) in upcoming elections. It is also most likely a coincidence that this is occurring prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In what must surely be another coincidence eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters will have the license offices closed. These eight include the five counties that voted most strongly for Democrats in 2012. John Merrill, Alabama’s Secretary of State, counters that the state is ensuring that voters can get IDs. All the counties still have Board of Registrars offices and they issue voter ID cards. The state also has a mobile ID office that is supposed to visit all the counties.

While these IDs are available, only 29 IDs have been issued by the mobile offices since the start of 2015 and only 1,442 have been issued in total from all sources.  In response to concerns about these low numbers, Merrill insists that the fault lies with the voters, noting that “you can lead a horse to water. But you can’t make him drink.” He points to the existence of an advertising campaign to inform voters and the availability of the above mentioned IDs.

On the one hand, it is certainly tempting to agree with Merrill. As he noted, voters can get an ID other than a driver’s license and can do so in each county. There as, as he claimed, been a public awareness campaign.

If someone wants to vote in Alabama, it can be argued, then that person should take the effort to learn what she needs to do and make sure that she has the requisite ID. To use an analogy, for each class with a paper, I have a detailed paper guide that shows step-by-step how to do the paper and how it will be graded. I also have three videos on the paper and spend about 45 minutes in a class going over the paper. Despite all that, I always get at least 10% of the class who make it clear (usually by asking things like “so, what is this paper you mentioned?”) they have no idea about the paper. As such, Merrill’s replies have some merit.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the efforts to inform voters are not adequate. People who voted before the new voter ID law went into effect and did not happen to see the advertising campaign are likely to have no idea of the existence of this requirement. Those who are aware of the requirement for an ID might believe that a driver’s license is required and might have no idea that there is even such a thing as a special voter ID available. Even those who are aware of the law and the special IDs might face difficulties in getting an ID. Transportation could be an issue as could making the time to go get the ID.

Some people counter these claims by referencing their own experience. They already have a driver’s license, so they find it hard to believe that others would not have them. They have TV and the internet and free time to watch shows in which the advertising appears. They have their own car and time to do things, so they assume the same is true of other people. This is a natural psychological tendency, but the beliefs based on it can easily be in error. For example, when I was in grad school, I found it easy to get by without a car. It was fairly easy to walk two miles to the grocery store and walk back with a week’s worth of groceries. It was easy to just run or bike to campus. It was easy to run or bike to stores, the bank and other places. So, it would be natural for me to think this would be easy for everyone based on my own experience. However, I was well-aware that what is easy for me could be very hard for someone else in different circumstances.

Some refute these claims by arguing that even if it is not easy or convenient to learn about the special IDs and acquire them, people who want to vote should take the effort to check before every election to make sure of what rule changes might have occurred. These people should then be willing to take the steps needed to be able to vote and then take the steps needed to actually vote—no matter how challenging or inconvenient these things might be.

A reasonable reply to this is that since voting the basic foundation of democracy, the process should be made as easy and accessible as possible.  To do otherwise is to disenfranchise people unjustly. As such, people should not need to keep up with rule changes nor should they have to have an ID to vote.

The usual counter to this takes us back to the start: the concern about voter fraud. It is, I certainly agree, right to take steps to prevent voter fraud. However, as has been established beyond all rational doubt, the amount of voter fraud in the United States is miniscule. The fraud that does occur is also of the sort that voter ID would not prevent. I also accept the principle that it is better to allow a voter to vote fraudulently than to disenfranchise a legitimate voter—especially given that even if a method of fraud prevention did work, it would be preventing an incredibly low number of cases of fraud while most likely disenfranchising a vastly larger number of people.

Since I do like to think well of people, I am willing to accept that the officials in Alabama are acting from the most noble of intentions and, despite the evidence to the contrary, are not trying to take steps to increase the chances of Republican victories. That said, the methods they have chosen will have no real impact on fraud—both because it barely exists and because the voter fraud that occurs is generally not the sort that can be prevented by IDs. These methods will, however, have a negative impact on voters and that is certainly wrong—at least if democracy is accepted as a good.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 12, 2015 at 8:34 am

    If voting changed anything it would be illegal. What’s wrong with showing a photo ID to vote? We’re required to show a photo ID for all sorts of things. Why not for voting? Why should voting retain it’s 1930’s “technology”, which consists of old ladies asking peoples their names and looking for these names on a paper list? What is that? The honor system? For that matter, why are Social Security cards so easy to counterfeit? No holograms or any other technology added to them to prevent fraud? Why? I think the Democrats must have a well oiled system for fraud in voting and social security cards they don’t want changed… ever. These are the only two important things that have never been updated.

  2. TJB said, on October 12, 2015 at 10:56 am

    “I will simply note that the best evidence shows that voter ID laws do have a negative impact on poor and minority voters.”

    Mike, I know you feel strongly about this, but you can’t just make stuff up. The best evidence, based on academic studies, show no effect on voter turnout from voter ID laws.

    But if the intent of the new laws really is to suppress minority group voting, it’s not likely to work. There has been a lot of academic research recently on the effects of stricter voter ID requirements, and—contrary to Barber’s apocalyptic statements—they don’t seem to have much of an impact on minority turnout at all.

    Take “The Politics of Race and Voter ID Laws in the States: The Return of Jim Crow?,” a 2013 study published in the Political Research Quarterly. In it, political scientists Rene Rocha and Tetsuya Matsubayashi find that states in which Republicans hold a majority in the legislature and the governorship are more likely to adopt strict voter ID laws. (And so it was in North Carolina when the new laws were adopted.) Then they look at how changes in electoral rules may have affected voter turnout by comparing election results before and after voter ID law changes in 49 states between 1980 and 2010.

    “Our primary explanatory variables, photo ID and nonphoto ID laws, have no statistically discernible relationship with the probability that whites, blacks, and Latinos voted in the general elections between 1980 and 2010 except that the nonphoto ID law has a positive and significant relationship with Latino turnout,” they find. “In short, more stringent ID requirements for voting have no deterring effect on individual turnout across different racial and ethnic groups.”

    Rocha and Matsubayashi speculate that any suppression effects the new laws may induce are being more than counteracted by get-out-the-vote efforts by partisan organizations that aim to mobilize minorities. The two also find that “universal mail voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and early in-person voting, have no systematic effect on turnout when racial and ethnic groups are analyzed separately.”

    In another recent paper, three political scientists from Berkeley and Columbia report the results of a field experiment involving voters in Appalachian Tennessee and Virginia matched for income, age, and minority-status in the 2012 general election. They also targeted voters in predominately black neighborhoods in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Roanoke, Virginia. Tennessee requires a photo ID to vote whereas Virginia requires a nonphoto ID, e.g., utility bills and bank statements showing the voter’s address. The researchers mailed three different postcards to selected voters. One reminded them to vote; the second warned that voter ID requirements had changed (“warning”); the third warned that the ID requirements had changed but also explained how to get the appropriate IDs (“help”). A control group received no postcards.

    The researchers reported that both white and black voters sent the reminder postcard voted at essentially no greater rate than the controls who did not receive postcards. On the other hand, both the warning and help postcards apparently boosted turnout by both white and black voters by around one percent. The researchers conclude. “We find no evidence that [stricter voter ID requirements] have a net demobilizing effect.”

    In a 2015 study that is currently under review, Lindsay Nielson—a political scientist at the University of San Diego—parses the effects of stricter voter ID laws on the voting patterns of the young, the elderly, the poor, and racial minorities. Using data on 100,000 respondents in Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, Nielson examines how voter ID laws affected turnout in both primary and general elections in 2010 and 2012.

    Nielson finds that stricter voter ID laws do change the probability that someone will vote in primary elections, but not in general elections. In primaries, she reports, whites and minorities vote at approximately similar rates; turnout declines for people of all races from 43 to 31 percent, as ID requirements become stricter. Turnout among voters over age 65 declines from 57 to 48 percent in primary elections; among those ages 35 to 64, it drops from 42 to 34 percent; the young vote decreases from 30 to 22 percent. Income makes no difference; turnout declines about 10 percent both for people who make more than $40,000 per year and those who make less. She found similar results when the income cutoff was set at $20,000 per year.

    General elections are another matter. Nielson finds that “there is little evidence that racial minorities are less likely than whites to vote when states institute voter identification requirements.” The elderly vote drops a few percentage points when IDs are required, but the turnout of middle-aged and young voters does not change. There is also “no statistically significant gap in estimated turnout [between high-income and low-income voters] when the identification law becomes stricter.”


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 12, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      There are also studies that show it does impact voting:



      But, there are good studies that indicate the impact is not entirely clear: http://www.propublica.org/article/everything-youve-ever-wanted-to-know-about-voter-id-laws.

      I’d say that the negative impact on voters is greater than the positive impact on voter fraud, mainly because there is a microscopic amount of voter fraud and that tends to be the sort that would not be stopped by requiring IDs. Fortunately, this is all I really need to make my case. At least on my principle that a law that is supposed to solve a harm must at the very least be neutral in its results (creates no more harm than it solves). Harms do, of course, include the costs imposed on people who have to follow the law, such as monetary costs and inconvenience. This is why I am fine with rational safety regulations, but not fine with laws designed to protect existing businesses from competition by making it too costly for new and initially less well-funded businesses to start up and compete.

      • TJB said, on October 12, 2015 at 2:06 pm

        I actually agree with you to some extent. Voter impersonation fraud is rare. However, voting by non-citizens is a real problem as shown, for example, here:


        What is your prescription for reducing this problem?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 14, 2015 at 11:36 am

          There seem to be ground for skepticism regarding that article:

          As such, I am not sure if this is a problem at all.

          • T. J. Babson said, on October 14, 2015 at 2:41 pm

            Mike have you noticed this pattern? I cite academic studies and you cite left wing media articles.

            • wtp said, on October 14, 2015 at 4:53 pm

              That can’t be. That would be polimacism. But Mike’s a philosopher.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2015 at 6:22 pm

              I would not consider the study you cited a well conducted academic study. Other academics have been rather critical of the methodology.

            • TJB said, on October 16, 2015 at 7:37 pm

              Mike, as you know, in academic journals there is a way to point out flaws in published work by sending in a comment on the article to the journal in which it was published. This comment is refereed just as the original article was refereed. Can you point to a refereed rebuttal of the article in question?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 19, 2015 at 1:13 pm

              Looking into the study, I found what would be expected: the right regards it as correct, the left regards it as flawed. The authors do claim that there are issues with their methodology.

              Aside from this one often cited study, are there any studies by neutral or bi-partisan research groups that show evidence of significant voting by non-citizens?

            • Anonymous said, on October 19, 2015 at 2:37 pm

              Looking into the study, I found what I expected:
              There. FIFY. Before taking the word of a biased source should you not have looked into the study before hand? And do you find it surprising that someone would not find it surprising that your “looking into the study” only confirmed for yourself the opinion that you previously took for granted as the correct one? But your not biased. Your a philosopher. A teacher. Paid by the state. With no political biases or such. And no such biases ever crop up in your teaching. Because that would be wrong, correct? You essentially using tax payer dollars to promote a political agenda that ultimately endorses taking more dollars from the taxpayers. That would be wrong, yes?

            • WTP said, on October 19, 2015 at 2:39 pm

              Me again….obviously.

            • TJB said, on October 19, 2015 at 10:34 pm

              Mike, here are the conclusions from the study. There are actual data in the study. Do you really doubt that some non-citizens vote?

              5. Conclusions

              Our exploration of non-citizen voting in the 2008 presidential election found that most non-citizens did not register or vote in 2008, but some did. The proportion of non-citizens who voted was less than fifteen percent, but significantly greater than zero. Similarly in 2010 we found that more than three percent of non-citizens reported voting.

              These results speak to both sides of the debate concerning non-citizen enfranchisement. They support the claims made by some anti-immigration organizations that non-citizens participate in U.S. elections. In addition, the analysis suggests that non-citizens’ votes have changed significant election outcomes including the assignment of North Carolina’s 2008 electoral votes, and the pivotal Minnesota Senate victory of Democrat Al Franken in 2008.

              However, our results also support the arguments made by voting and immigrant rights organizations that the portion of non-citizen immigrants who participate in U.S. elections is quite small. Indeed, given the extraordinary efforts made by the Obama and McCain campaigns to mobilize voters in 2008, the relatively small portion of non-citizens who voted in 2008 likely exceeded the portion of non-citizens voting in other recent U.S. elections.

              Our results also suggest that photo-identification requirements are unlikely to be effective at preventing electoral participation by non-citizen immigrants: In 2008, more than two thirds of non-citizen immigrants who indicated that they were asked to show photo-identification reported that they went on to cast a vote. A potential response to the inefficacy of photo-id at preventing non-citizen voting is found in laws recently passed by Kansas and Arizona that require voter registrants to prove citizenship. By highlighting and emphasizing the citizenship requirement (and by requiring documentation non-citizens should be unable to provide) it seems likely that such laws would prevent more non-citizens from voting. That said, enforcement would be critical for efficacy (and much would depend here upon local election officials), particularly since federal voter registration forms do not require proof of citizenship. In addition, already registered non-citizens might well be able to continue voting. In any case such measures would come with significant costs for some citizens for whom the necessary documentation could be challenging to provide.

              Ultimately, the results of our analysis provide a basis for informed reflection concerning the role of non-citizens in U.S. elections. They demonstrate that in spite of de-jure barriers to participation, a small portion of non-citizen immigrants do participate in U.S. elections, and that this participation is at times substantial enough to change important election outcomes including Electoral College votes and Senate races. For those who wish to further restrict participation by non-citizens, however, our results also provide important cautions. Simple resort to voter photo-identification rules is unlikely to be particularly effective.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2015 at 1:17 pm

              I do not doubt that some non-citizens vote (since “some” means “at least one”).

              The results are certainly interesting, but one concern I have is the way the data seems to have been gathered. That is, based on the quote they rely on self-reporting. That, as I note in my own surveys that require self-reporting, has many inherent weaknesses. One problem is confirming that those surveyed are actually in the relevant population (which is why I didn’t post a link to my attendance survey in the post-people might go there to troll my survey). Another is verifying the truth of the responses. In my attendance survey, one weakness is that students will tend to select a good reason for missing class over a poor one. In the case of the non-citizen voting survey, we’d need to know that the respondents were actually not citizens and that they honestly answered the questions. It is easy to imagine people rigging the survey.

              Interestingly, the survey indicates that voter ID was not effective. But, there are still the concerns about whether or not these responses match reality.

              I do agree that non-citizens should be prevented from voting. One obvious concern is the potential for elections being manipulated by “importing” voters. As the authors note, preventing this has to be balanced against the risk of disenfranchising citizens.

              One approach that would certainly reduce the impact of any non-citizen voting would be for more Americans to vote. Voter apathy makes each vote more important, thus increasing the impact of any non-citizen voters.

              Another option would involve the broader problem of immigrants: expand the field of legal immigrants and document them as such, then put this information into the voter databases. The obvious challenge is addressing how to transition illegals into legals in a rational and fair way.

  3. nailheadtom said, on October 12, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    The state would like everyone to vote because that would demonstrate that the citizens take their sham democracy seriously. With arcane institutions like the electoral college and the fact that it’s literally impossible for almost anyone of the 330 million to have any real knowledge of the qualifications of the candidates, it’s the height of foolishness to set aside your fishing pole or pool cue and trudge down to the polls to make an x next to the name of some power-mad bozo that wants to make illegal whatever it is that you’d like to do. An ID is required to buy a pack of weeds or a six-pack, cash a check or get the senior citizen discount at Goodwill. Why should an important task like voting be any different than getting twenty Marlboros?

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