Journalism in the Public Interest

What Effect, If Any, Did Voter ID Laws Have on the Election?

Dealt early defeats in court, the laws’ actual impact on voters remains an open question


Citizens vote on Election Day at Fire Station #71 in Alhambra, Calif., on November 6, 2012. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Elaine Schmottlach has been a ballot clerk in the small southeastern New Hampshire town of Nottingham – population, 4,785 – for the last 25 years. Yet when it came time for her to vote on Nov. 6, she had to show valid photo identification as required under a new state law.

Schmottlach refused and submitted a challenged voter affidavit instead.

“My view is this is a horrendous law,” she told ProPublica. “I absolutely detest it. I hated having to ask my best friend to show an ID to prove that she is who she is.”

Schmottlach’s act of defiance didn’t have much effect – this time. Her vote still counted, she wasn’t handed a provisional ballot and she wasn’t required to return to the poll with ID. But that could change in future elections under New Hampshire’s plans to phase in the new law.

In the months leading up to the election, voter ID laws were seen as the biggest threat to voter turnout: More than 30 states have passed such laws, which require voters to provide some type of identification at the polls (see our previous explainer).

But many of these laws, particularly the ones requiring strict photo identification, met setbacks ahead of the election. A state judge ruled in October that Pennsylvania’s law couldn’t be implemented this election, while federal judges refused to allow similar measures take effect this year  in Texas and South Carolina.

A week before the election, the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that “for the overwhelming majority of those whose rights were most at risk, the ability to vote will not be at issue on November 6th.”

Experts agree that much-assailed voter ID laws were less an issue in this election than limited early voting hours, lengthy ballots and precincts shuttered after Hurricane Sandy. These issues contributed to long wait times, prompting some to simply throw up their hands and give up on voting.

“Of all the issues relating to voting rules, voter ID got the most attention but was probably the least significant, mainly because we didn’t have it in Pennsylvania,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in election law.

In Pennsylvania, where some feared the state’s continuing efforts to advertise the new law would confuse voters, election officials were required to ask voters for ID , but were not allowed to prevent anyone from casting a ballot for failure to produce one.

“On November 6, it was a dry run just as it was in the (April 24) primary,” said Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director at the Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan voter education group in Philadelphia. “We don’t know how many people might have been confused and didn’t show up. Among the people that did show up, there was certainly some confusion out there. But I wouldn’t characterize it as so overwhelming that it disrupted the voting process.”

In December, a state judge is expected to hear arguments to permanently block the controversial law.

In Virginia, which instituted a voter ID law approved by the Justice Department in August, watchdog groups reported few disruptions. (The state has a less stringent law, accepting non-photo IDs such as recent utility bills, bank statements or paystubs.)

The Virginia State Board of Elections estimated that there were 543 provisional ballots cast as a result of voters lacking valid ID – representing less than 5 percent of the total number of provisional ballots cast statewide.

In Tennessee, where a new photo voter ID law went into effect this year, the Secretary of State’s Office reported no negative impact on turnout, reporting turnout rates “consistent with past presidential elections,” said Communications Director Blake Fontenay.

“If anything, the law may have encouraged more people to vote because they were more confident their ballots would not be cancelled out by ballots cast by ineligible voters,” Fontenay told ProPublica.

Out of 2.45 million ballots cast statewide, 674 Tennessee voters filled out provisional ballots for lacking acceptable photo ID.

New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said that while the state doesn’t have a final tally on voters who filled out challenged voter affidavit forms as a result of lacking ID, the number “appears to be quite low – possibly less than 1 percent.”

Elsewhere, there have been reports that momentum against voter-ID laws, seen by critics to disproportionately affect minority, elderly and poor voters, actually helped turnout, but the evidence is  spotty.

According to a preliminary analysis by the Committee of Seventy, voter turnout in Philadelphia decreased from 61.6 percent in 2008 to 59.7 percent this year. The group’s data also shows that Barack Obama won the city by a comparable margin this year, 467,000 votes, as he did four years ago, when his edge was 461,670 votes.

As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight’s blog notes, voter turnout across the county, particularly in states pushing for new voter-ID laws, was all over the map, according to the early estimates. Virginia saw a slight increase, New Hampshire stayed virtually the same, while Pennsylvania cast fewer votes than in 2008.

All this doesn’t mean that voting was problem-free. According to The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national election law hotline fielded roughly 90,000 concerned calls this Election Day, down from 100,000 in 2008. Many of the calls related to antiquated voting machines, names not appearing on voter registration rolls, and polling place confusion.

“What we saw, by and large, was the same problems we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Eric Marshall, manager of legal mobilization for the Lawyers’ Committee. “The biggest theme was the recurring problems: the more things change, the more things stay the same.”

I hate to raise the point, but the article says, “Her vote still counted.”  But this is the problem with the Voter ID law debate in its entirety.

We no longer KNOW if her vote (or any vote) counted, because all the counting happens behind closed doors.

We debate whether it’s better to allow a dirty foreigner to vote or deprive a grandmother her right to vote, but unless we can account for every vote, it’s irrelevant.

It used to be that votes were counted locally and publicly.  The results were posted and sent to the next level up, where the process (tally and post) was repeated.  This makes any tampering extremely easy to detect.

But today?  No.

Stalin is at least credited with saying that it’s not the votes that count, but who counts the votes.

(We could also discuss indistinguishable, implausible candidates who used their positions to remove the third-party candidates from the discussion.  But that’s another rant for another day.  But seriously, how many people out there know that a Presidential candidate was arrested outside of a Presidential debate for daring to join a protest?)

Seriously?!?  In the states where voter ID was REQUIRED, Obama did NOT carry.  The states that did NOT require voter ID, surprise, Obama often won. Gee, what a coincidence.  NOT! 

It sickens me that so many dopey American voters voted that fraud back in office again after EVERYTHING he’s done, not done, etc.  Most recent: Bengazi—allowing four Americans to be MURDERED!  He should be brought up on TREASON and DERELICTION OF DUTY charges, not re-elected!  That’s ok.  God’s in control.  He will handle this—sooner vs. later, I hope.

Did Pro Publica ask the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Communications Director Blake Fontenay to substantiate his suggestion that voter ID “may have encouraged more people to vote”? This sounds like an unsupported, speculative rationalization for a policy position he prefers for self-interested reasons, not a sincere effort to get to the truth, and as such I question whether it was appropriate to print it.

Seriously, Obama won in 11 states that required ID. Here’s what actually happened:

States with no ID requirement
Obama: 16
Romney: 4

States with non-photo ID requirement
Obama: 7
Romney: 12

States with photo ID requirement
Obama: 4
Romney: 3

States with strict photo ID requirement
Obama: 0
Romney: 4


i think your stats help support the cynical argument that voter id laws were being pushed this year to limit voting for obama, no? what say you, karen?

Tennessee’s official numbers haven’t been released yet, but initial results show turnout down about 160,000 votes compared to November 2008. That wouldn’t have tipped the state any differently, but it’s not chump change either.

Mostly, kp, I say that it may be a good idea to use facts to support an argument rather than exclamation points.

As for what the stats support? I don’t think they actually support that voter ID laws were pushed to limit Obama votes because the stats themselves just capture one point in time. We’d need to see, most likely at a voting precinct level, how voting changes after such laws are implemented. We’d also need to see what the voter distribution in these areas is—attempting to suppress 2% of the vote in an area where you have only 15% on your side is unlikely to be worth the effort. (Not to say people don’t expend effort unwisely at times.)

I believe many in the Republican Party want voter ID laws because they believe it important only living, legal-age, legally-allowed (depending on state laws regarding felons and that sort of thing) citizens vote and each one votes only once. I believe some want to limit it further in order to exclude some of ‘the other side’ from voting.

I believe many in the Democrat Party are concerned that people on the fringes who are living, legal-age, legally-allowed citizens could be discourages from or prevented from voting by the ID laws. I believe some want to oppose anything Republicans support.

I also believe some people on both sides attempt and at times succeed in cheating either in casting or counting votes.

Mostly I believe correcting the problems is something rational people could figure out without inflammatory rhetoric.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues you won't read about elsewhere.

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