A Disproportionate Burden

Strict Voter Identification Laws and Minority Turnout

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab helps highlight new research and interesting ideas in election science, and is a proud co-sponsor of the Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference (ESRA).

Zoltan Hajnal, John Kuk, and Nazita Lajevardi recently presented a paper at the 2018 ESRA conference entitled, “A Disproportionate Burden: Strict Voter Identification Laws and Minority Turnout.” Here, they summarize their analysis from that paper.


Voter ID laws in the United States are becoming more common and more strict. In 2013 alone, legislators in six states moved to strengthen their voter ID laws. Today, eleven states have a strict voter ID requirement in place. Moreover, the fate of these laws is far from certain; almost every strict ID requirement has been challenged in the courts, and many of these cases remain outstanding. More challenges to these laws are likely to emerge in the future. Outside of these legal proceedings, the constitutionality of these laws remains in question. The stakes for American democracy are high and growing higher by the year.

The answer to that constitutionality question may well be tipped one way or the other by the weight of the empirical evidence about the burden these laws pose on minorities. All of this means that there is a real need for hard evidence. Clear, objective, and empirical answers to the core voter identification debates could actually sway outcomes on the issue.

In this article, we have attempted to provide some of those hard empirical answers. By focusing on data from recent elections following widely implemented strict photo ID laws, by using official turnout data to eliminate concerns over inflated and biased turnout patterns from self-reported survey data, and by employing a research design that incorporates longitudinal data and difference-in-difference tests, our analysis overcomes many of the core problems faced by previous studies. As such, our study offers a more rigorous test of these laws.

Our primary analysis assesses changes in aggregate county turnout data between 2012 to 2016, incorporating all U.S. counties in the analysis. We also perform a robustness check that focuses on changes in county turnout between 2010 and 2014. The core test is to compare changes in turnout in racially diverse counties in states that have implemented a new strict voter identification law to changes in turnout in similarly racially diverse counties in states that have not enacted a new strict voter identification law. We also focus on how the gap in turnout changes between more racially diverse and less racially diverse counties in states with newly enacted strict ID laws, compared to how the gap changes elsewhere. We perform these difference-in-difference tests with and without controls for other factors that could also shape changes in turnout.

The findings presented in our paper strongly suggest that these laws do, in fact, represent a burden that disproportionately affects minorities and significantly alters the makeup of the voting population. Where these laws are enacted, turnout in racially diverse counties declines: it declines more than in less diverse areas, and it declines more sharply than it does in other states. As a result of these laws, the voices of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities become more muted and the relative influence of white America grows. An already significant racial skew in American democracy becomes all the more pronounced. If courts are indeed trying to gauge the burden these laws impose on minorities and others, then this new data should help the courts with their deliberations.

John Kuk is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, working on topics related to inequality. He uses new computational methods such as automated text analysis to study economic and racial inequality and the intersection between the two in the United States.


Nazita Lajevardi is a political scientist and attorney at Michigan State University, working on issues related to race and ethnic politics, political behavior, voting rights, and immigration.

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