Support for voter ID laws in state legislatures is, in no small part, motivated by racial bias, according to researchers at the University of Southern California.
Racial bias may be difficult to prove, especially since most bias occurs subconsciously, but a new USC survey discovered “strong evidence” that lawmakers respond correspondence on the voter ID issue based on whether an email to their office is in Spanish or English.
The findings bring up questions over motivations of voter ID laws, supported by a 2007 Supreme Court decision on Indiana’s strict voter law saying it represented “generally applicable, nondiscriminatory voting regulation,” writes Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post.
Voter ID laws require registered voters to a type of government-issued ID before at the ballot box — supporters claiming they prevent voter fraud as opponents insist they disproportionately affect certain groups such as elderly, minority and the poor.
USC researchers developed a real-world test to learn if there is bias among state legislators, by issuing email communication to 1,871 state legislators in 14 states two weeks before the 2012 elections. The email said that the sender did not have a driver’s license, and asked if they could still vote in November.
The voter name field was an essential element, since one group of emails would be from voters named “Jacob Smith.” Another group would come from “Santiago Rodriguez.”
In addition, half of the emails were in Spanish, and half was in English.
Researchers measured overall response rates to the emails, but more importantly, they noted how frequent legislators responded with a simple “yes”— in those states where driver’s licenses were not required to cast a vote.
In general, state lawmakers who support voter ID laws were much less likely to respond to “Santiago Rodriguez” than to “Jacob Smith.” It demonstrated a considerable preference for Anglo names than Hispanic ones. The same was true for those legislators who did not back voter ID laws, but to a much smaller degree.
“The fact that legislators supporting voter identification responded so much l to the Latino name is evidence anti-Latino bias, unrelated to electoral considerations, might be influencing these public policies,” the researchers’ report says. “The same elites who propose and support legislation to restrict Latino voting rights also provide less non-policy responsiveness to Latino constituents, at least in the context examined here. This means that the quality of representation is poor for many Latino constituents.”
The foundation of the push for voter ID laws is that the fraud occurs at substantial levels. Other research debunked the idea, writes Ingraham: political scientists at both Stanford and the University of Wisconsin found “virtually all the major scholarship on voter impersonation fraud – based largely on specific allegations and criminal investigations – has concluded that it is vanishingly rare, and certainly nowhere near the numbers necessary to have an effect on any election.”
Lawmakers justify voter ID laws by saying they are not motivated by discrimination, at least intentionally. Nevertheless, the USC report found a link between policymaker support for voter ID laws and bias against Latino voters, as measured in responses to emails from constituents.
Ingraham concludes that voter ID laws are racially motivated answers to a problem that never truly existed.