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What We Don’t Know: The Full Effect Of Voter Suppression and Voter ID Laws

As we and others have extensively documented, voters are facing a range of barriers this election, from shuttered polling places and long lines to new, stringent voter ID laws, largely pushed through by Republicans and disproportionately affecting minority voters.

As journalist Ari Berman, who covers the voting rights beat, pointed out today, this is the first presidential election in half a century without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling Shelby County v. Holder invalidated federal oversight of states with a history of voting discrimination.

But quantifying exactly how much the changes have depressed turnout is nearly impossible.

“It’s exceedingly difficult to measure the effects of voter ID laws,” says David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. That's because, Becker notes, “it’s incredibly hard to know who’s choosing not to vote because of barriers."

There are innumerable factors that could affect turnout -- not only voting rules and regulations and enthusiasm for candidates but also things like the weather. Isolating for the effect of any single change is difficult because elections are not controlled experiments.

"You’ll never know about the people who never even try to vote because they assume they don’t have an updated ID,” Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, told us of the effects of the state's voter ID law.

What we do know is that the new laws did create impediments for at least some people.

In Virginia, this is the first presidential election in which the state's voter ID law is in effect. Peggy Petty, the general registrar who runs the election in Danville, VA, said in an interview this afternoon that about 25 voters who lacked proper IDs had come to her office to get a temporary ID, then go back to their polling place and vote.

But Petty said she had no idea how many voters hadn't even bothered to go through the hassle. "I wouldn’t know if people were turned away because they wouldn’t have come to me," she said.

In Michigan, Electionland received multiple reports of poll workers wrongly telling voters they needed an ID to vote. The state does have a voter ID law but voters also have the option of filling out an affidavit. It's not clear how many voters this bad information affected.

In Wisconsin, Molly McGrath of VoteRiders said she was flooded with calls from voters today confused about the requirements of the new law.

There are several academic studies in the works that will shed a bit more light on what happened this election. A University of Wisconsin professor, for example, is doing a survey study to try to get at the effect of the state's voter ID law.

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Portrait of Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. To securely send Justin documents or other files online, visit our SecureDrop page.

About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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