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New insights on US voters who don't have photo ID

(U.S. Air Force/Holly Brown)

Voters who cast ballots in Texas and Michigan in November 2016 rarely lacked a photo ID, but those who did were disproportionately people of color, two new working papers show.

The two studies, while completed independently, complement one another. They each focus on voting habits in one state but provide broader insights about how different types of voter identification laws could affect other parts of the country, said Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who co-authored the study of Michigan voters.

In Michigan, voters are asked — not required — to bring their photo ID to the polls. But if they don’t, they can still vote if they fill out an affidavit. In several other states, voters must bring specific forms of identification.

“While it is relatively infrequent that Michigan voters show up to vote without photo identification, certain types of people are more likely to lack photo identification than others,” Meredith told Journalist’s Resource. “Thus, removing a pathway for those without photo identification to vote will affect some groups more than others.”

Meredith and his colleagues estimate that 0.3 to 0.6 percent of Michigan voters didn’t have photo IDs when they showed up to vote during the 2016 general election. They also learned that minority voters were 2.5 to 6 times more likely than non-Hispanic, white voters to lack a photo ID.

Meredith presented these findings at the 2018 Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference, held in Wisconsin in late July.

Voter ID laws vary nationwide. The strictest ones are criticized as discriminatory because some people cannot afford or have difficulty acquiring government-issued IDs. The American Civil Liberties Union is among the organizations that have challenged voter ID laws in states such as Arkansas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

It’s tough to gauge how many people don’t vote because they don’t have the right identification. There’s no comprehensive data on who gets turned away at the polls or who decides not to show up at all.

Election officials in Michigan and Texas know how many of their voters arrived without proper ID in 2016 because they kept a paper trail. As in Michigan, voters in Texas who didn’t have a photo ID could cast ballots after completing and signing a form. Beginning in late 2016, Texans without the right identification were allowed to vote after submitting a “Reasonable Impediment Declaration” indicating why they didn’t have the ID.

In Texas, ID-less voters were rarer than in Michigan, according to a paper another research team prepared for the 2018  State Politics and Policy Conference, held in Pennsylvania in June. Of the about 9 million Texans who voted in the 2016 general election, 16,002 filled out a form indicating they didn’t have the correct ID.

That study finds that black voters in Texas were about 54 percent more likely to vote without an ID than non-Hispanic, whites voters. Hispanic voters were 14 percent more likely.

The study also reveals that most Texans who voted without an ID actually possessed the correct identification — they just didn’t have it with them on Election Day.

“This evidence supports the notion that strict voter identification laws prevent otherwise eligible individuals from voting, and have disproportionately negative impacts on minority citizens,” write the study’s two authors, Bernard L. Fraga of Indiana University and Michael G. Miller of Barnard College.

Texas had more stringent requirements in 2014 — it required a photo ID to vote. Fraga and Miller estimate that voters without an ID in 2016 were 14 percentage points less likely to vote in Texas two years earlier than individuals who voted with an ID in 2016.

Texans offered various reasons why they didn’t have a qualifying ID for the 2016 general election. Nearly 30 percent said their IDs had been lost or stolen. About 11.5 percent cited work obligations while another 4 percent said family obligations prevented them from getting one.

Nearly 36 percent of individuals without IDs checked the “other” box, many of whom indicated they had moved so their current address didn’t match what was listed on their IDs.

Of those who selected the “other” option, 1.4 percent — 82 people — cited cost as the reason they didn’t have the appropriate ID.


Looking for more election-related research? Check out our write-ups on factors affecting minority turnout, voter participation in primary elections and public fears about electoral fraud.

Here’s more research on voter ID laws specifically:

  • A December 2017 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly examines public opinion toward voter identification laws. A main takeaway: Republicans tend to become more supportive of voter ID laws after learning about instances of voter fraud. Meanwhile, support from Democrats seems to hinge on which party stands to benefit from these laws. “Republicans appear highly sensitive to evidence of fraud (whereas Democrats do not), while Democrats appear highly sensitive to how VID [voter identification laws] will affect their party’s electoral chances in future elections (whereas Republicans do not),” writes author John V. Kane, an assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.


  • A May 2017 study in the Annual Review of Political Science looks at ID laws and voter turnout. “To date, there is little convincing evidence that voter identification laws influence turnout substantially,” writes the author, Benjamin Highton of the University of California, Davis. “However, the 2014 and 2016 election cycles have been accompanied by a jump in the number of states employing strict photo ID laws, which means there will be a substantial increase in the amount of data available to better assess the turnout effects of these laws in future research.”


  • A January 2017 study that appeared in American Politics Research looks at the relationship between political party and a state’s adoption of the strictest types of voter ID laws. Authors Daniel R. Biggers of the University of California, Riverside and Michael J. Hanmer of the University of Maryland write that their study provides “the strongest evidence to date that greater diversity in a state’s racial and ethnic composition consistently increases the propensity of Republicans to act once in office.”


  • An October 2014 study in The Journal of Politics, “Who Asks for Voter Identification? Explaining Poll-Worker Discretion,” finds that voter ID requirements “are not implemented equally across groups of voters, and poll workers exercise substantial discretion in how they apply election law.”




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