Polls find support for voter ID but little awareness
Despite widespread support for voter IDs, polling experts say the public is poorly informed about the controversial laws and their potential impact on the November presidential election.
A new Washington Post poll found that 74 percent of respondents strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that voters should be required to show a government-issued ID when voting.
However, 51 percent of the randomly selected 2,047 adults surveyed nationally between July 18 and 29 said they had heard either not much or nothing about voter ID laws.
"From a public awareness standpoint, it's pretty low awareness," said Jon Cohen, the Post's director of polling. "We're talking about under half of all American adults who have even heard something of this raging controversy."
In 2011-12, lawmakers proposed 62 photo ID bills in 37 states, with multiple bills introduced in some states. Ten states have passed strict photo ID laws since 2008, though several may not be in effect in November because of legal challenges.
Pennsylvania is among the states that require voters to show an acceptable photo ID, a law that has been challenged in court. A decision is expected this week.
Advocates for the laws, overwhelmingly Republican and conservative, cite fraud repeatedly but have offered virtually no evidence to support that claim.
A new nationwide analysis of more than 2,000 cases of alleged election fraud over the last dozen years shows that in-person voter impersonation on Election Day was virtually nonexistent.
The analysis by News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative-reporting project, found 10 cases of alleged in-person voter impersonation since 2000.
Polling expert Phil Meyer, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees that the public is not familiar with voter ID laws, and that how poll questions are worded could determine responses.
When a recent University of Delaware poll, for instance, presented laws as a way to stop voter fraud, there was more support than when the same measures were described as a possible form of discrimination.
University of Delaware political science professor David Wilson, who conducted that national survey from May 20 to June 6, said it showed the 906 randomly selected respondents weren't familiar with the debate over voter IDs.
"Until they see specific media accounts of how these things can disenfranchise voters, people won't know much about that argument," Wilson said.
In the Washington Post poll, there was a sizable gap between whites, who were more concerned about the voter fraud that ID laws are supposed to prevent, and blacks, who were more concerned about such laws denying them the right to vote.
Cohen said these results show a stark racial divide that lines up with partisan divisions based on the questions asked.
The Post found that 52 percent of whites were more concerned about voter fraud, compared to 26 percent of blacks; 67 percent of blacks cited more concern about voter suppression compared to 40 percent of whites.
Meyer said the public was generally confused about the basic argument for voter ID laws, which is that they would prevent voter fraud.
"Voter fraud, if you haven't thought about it, sounds bad," said Meyer, a veteran journalist and expert in computer-assisted reporting. "But if you do [think about] the probability of a vote being fraudulent, it's less than your chance of being struck by lightning."
The Post poll also found a significant partisan divide among racial groups when asked the same question about fraud and voter suppression.
"There are two good things at stake," Cohen said. "People want all eligible voters to vote, and people want no fraud."
"Concern" for voter fraud was more important among Republicans than Democrats, with 67 percent compared to 32 percent, respectively.
However, 62 percent of Democrats showed more concern for disenfranchisement, compared to 27 percent of Republicans.
Additionally, 59 percent of blacks and 41 percent of whites said support of voter ID laws was an effort to boost one party by a good amount or a great deal.
Democrats and civil rights groups say the ID laws are unnecessary and will disenfranchise eligible voters, especially minority groups, adding heat to an already charged partisan debate.
Every state legislature that has enacted a voter ID law - except Rhode Island's - was controlled by Republicans when its law was passed.
The Post poll shows broad support for ID laws despite party affiliation, with support from 88 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats.
According to the Post poll, 48 percent of those surveyed believe voter fraud is a major problem; 57 percent of Republicans responded that way.
Wilson's University of Delaware study found that the laws enjoy more support among those who had high levels of "racial resentment" when answering questions about African Americans receiving "special considerations."
For example, Wilson said that those surveyed were more likely to support voter ID laws if they agreed with the statement "African Americans bring up race only when they need to make an excuse for their failure."
The poll found that 34 percent of all respondents strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with that statement.
Wilson said the "racial resentment" response represented an attitude about who deserves the right to vote.
"It's racialized about who might be getting what in society, and deserving it," he said.
According to Wilson, people who showed high levels of racial resentment probably believe that a "real American" doesn't have trouble getting an ID, doesn't need help from the government, and doesn't complain.
"It's about the identity that Americans have. . . . It's about working and not complaining - not asking for special favors like Spanish-speaking forms, or having to be politically correct in public conversations," he said.
Wilson said the lack of knowledge about the laws, along with the racial issues involved, shows that many supporters of voter ID cannot see things from the perspective of disenfranchised voters.
"They tend to not be in the position of those who are disenfranchised," he said. "It's not 40 or 50 percent of the public - it's people at the margins. But the margins make a difference in elections."
Wilson said it was not surprising that Republicans had higher levels of racial resentment and stronger support for voter ID laws.
"You have to think about the parties that are involved. The Republican Party is much more homogeneous than the Democratic Party," he said.
Democrats have criticized the laws for having a disproportionate effect on minorities. That, in turn, could mean a drop in turnout, which would hurt Democratic candidates.
Jack Fitzpatrick and Khara Persad were Hearst Foundation Fellows this summer for News21.
This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program at Arizona State University.