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UD’s David Wilson, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science and international relations, has researched voting ID laws.
UD’s David Wilson, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science and international relations, has researched voting ID laws.

Voter ID laws

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Prof. David Wilson looks at public perception, partisanship and the ways that strict laws serve as ‘poll taxes’

From hanging chads to fuzzy math to a popular vote winner who lost the general election, the 2000 presidential race was the first to broadcast election controversy in real-time.

It was the first time in U.S. history that the entire electorate witnessed the prospect that their vote might not get counted in an election. This sparked public skepticism and mistrust in elections, but also led to a renewed politicization of who should be allowed to vote. While racial-ethnic minorities endured efforts to suppress their vote for years, the fallout from the 2000 election created a host of new suppressive reforms at the state level. The most prominent of which is voter ID laws.

According to new research published in Springer Nature by UD’s David Wilson, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science and international relations, most individuals support voter ID laws because they are essentially costless and non-controversial. Since most people have forms of identification — that have a photo and a signature — they do not have to deal with the more controversial aspects of these laws. As a result, many do not have good reason to oppose voter ID.

Prior research by Wilson found that large majorities support voter ID laws, including liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, old and young, and whites and racial minorities alike. This despite the prospect that such laws potentially disenfranchise specific segments of the population: Newer voters, younger voters, racial-ethnic minorities, those living in urban areas where a driver’s license is unnecessary, and persons with lower incomes because they require more than simple registration and showing up at the polls. Some states require social security cards, birth certificates or other certified documents to obtain a state voting ID.

Wilson’s study highlights the importance of Voter ID as a “low information” issue; people don’t know much about it, and don’t feel a need to invest much study into it.

“It’s not controversial on the surface,” Wilson said. “Since for many people the need for ID is commonplace, ​few oppose it as a requirement. The reasoning is that it is basically costless and commonsensical.”

Moreover, strict voter ID laws operate as “poll taxes” on those who do not have the requisite ID; however, Wilson’s research shows that when the “tax” is applied to everyone, even the most ardent supporters of voter ID will actually oppose it,” he said.

Wilson recently answered a few questions about the study, which is particularly relevant as we head into the home stretch of an election that is already seeing record turnout in states with early voting.

Q: What was the genesis of this study?

Wilson: This study of voter ID laws corresponds to my research on justice and how people think about the distribution of rights in society. It comes out of my broader research that seeks to understand the roles of deservingness, equity, and inclusion in politics. 

Q: Is support for voter ID laws related to how informed the public is?

Wilson: Yes, most people do not know the specifics of their state’s voting ID requirement. Each state has its own requirements for both registration and eligibility to vote in an election. In some places you need a photo ID with a signature that's issued by the state or federal government. In other places, you may just need a photo ID with your address; sometimes you don’t need a photo, but the ID must have a signature. In some places, you simply have to state your name. The public doesn't really track the nuances. They just hope they've got it right on election day.

Q: How does cost play into this?

Wilson: We ran experiments that looked at cost in terms of finances, but also time and effort. We found that support for voter ID laws decreased dramatically when people are forced to deal with the costs of obtaining an ID. In one study, we asked people how much they support voter ID laws, and then we followed up with a second question that included a prompt that their state was proposing a new law that would require all eligible voters to get a state issued ID. Support declined dramatically in the second question. When we added on various “taxes” such as how long it would take to get the ID, what documents were required, or an imposed cost, support decreased even more. Most significantly, support decreased for Republicans, who are the most staunch supporters of voter ID. This signaled to us that cost is the inherent controversy in voter ID laws, and that since most people have the ID, they do not experience the tax of having to obtain it.  

Q: It speaks to politics as much as to the idea of empathy, right? It seems like it’s similar to what we’re seeing with the response to COVID-19.

Wilson: Part of the psychology of politics is understanding how the public consumes information, whether it be from elected officials, the media, or friends and family. Issues tend to become relevant only when you have to experience them directly. For example, those with the best medical care in the world and have a job, can get sick with COVID, but they can always go see their doctor and get  the care they need. But people without healthcare or jobs, maybe experiencing a great deal of anxiety over getting sick and not being able to work or pay for care, especially if they have children. And so the sense of controversy may not be equal, as those with insurance see it as straightforward, and those without see things as unfair and unjust. COVID-19 will likely lead to more support for the Affordable Care Act among past opponents, because now getting insurance given pre existing conditions is more relevant. 

Q: Why can’t people take the leap and realize that even though restrictive voter ID laws don’t impact them directly, they do impact the election, so therefore they do indeed directly impact them?

Wilson: Remember, voter ID is a low information issue, and most people are not motivated to think that much into it. Also, many people (at least 35%) of registered voters do not vote, and so voting is a big concern for them.  Essentially, it requires a bit of a leap that one should care about increasing voting turnout; political scientists who study democracy have found that there is not unanimous agreement about who should be allowed to vote. Some believe that people who aren't informed shouldn't participate, and others think that if you commit a serious crime or you don't pay your taxes, you shouldn't be able to vote. The bottom line is that many people want voting to be an exclusive privilege more so than a right. 

Q: You mentioned in this study how the contested 2000 election brought about a hyper partisanship that changed the whole dynamics surrounding voting.

Wilson: After the 2000 election, people started to not feel confident in the election system. It was amazing to watch the public see pretty much for the first time that they may vote, but their vote may not count due to mechanical accidents or human error. If you have a hanging chad, or you did not hole punch your paper ballot all the way through or you checked the box, instead of filling it in with the pencil, your vote could actually be eliminated. Also, in that election Al Gore got more popular votes than George W. Bush did, but still lost the electoral college election, the one that matters. So the confidence in the electoral system was eroding. Bush passed a motor voter law early on that would allow more people to register and make it easier to vote. What Republicans soon realized was that, well, if we allow more people to vote, it’s very likely they may not win because the population racial-ethnic demographics are shifting, and their conservative messaging was not breaking through to the changing electorate. One solution was to incorporate more strict requirements on voting, under the guise that there's more fraud, there's more corruption, and there needs to be safeguards on the system to prevent “all of the new voters” from corrupting it. Similar strategies were used when European immigrants first came to the U.S. They came about over fears that outsiders were going to tear apart the American way of life. Similar burdens were placed on racial-ethnic minorities when the federal government forced the integration of schools, workplaces and the military; and even when women were allowed to vote. So 2000 was kind of the kickoff point for fears over the changing America, and then when 9/11 happened, the public became more open to restrictions on its civil liberties. 

Q: How does partisanship factor into views of voter ID laws?

Wilson: Democrats tend to be more open to the government playing an active role in equalizing society;  therefore they tend to support various forms of diversity in government and place a greater emphasis on collective interests. Alternatively, Republicans tend to desire limits on government, where the key roles are protecting the free market, providing a common defense, and arbitrating disputes. With such a limited role people can ostensibly go after all of the prosperity they want without a lot of rules or allowances for those that cannot compete. Essentially, it's up to each individual — not the government — to resolve their own problems. There's kind of this survival of the fittest model that allows people to say, hey, if I work really hard, and I survive, then I deserve what I've got. And if voter ID laws require you to get an ID, you should get it. Republicans generally follow their leaders. The narrative is that Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. And the falling in line part about Republicans is if the message from their elected leaders is that voter ID laws are protecting the sanctity of the ballot, then people will just say, yeah, I've got an ID, everybody should have an ID, it's personal responsibility. They have little incentive to  think that maybe there is no fraud, and that this is an ID that this is a requirement that is unnecessary; that is not falling in line. Regardless, in our republic, parties serve the public and it’s up to individuals to decide which should govern. This brings us back to voter ID laws; if parties can actually help decide who governs by limiting the population of voters, they can have a more simplified and direct message for their base, and thus a reliable level of support.

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