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Poll: Most favor Voter ID laws, but public awareness of their effect is low

From a continuing  series of articles, Who Can Vote: a News21 investigation of voting rights in America. Read the previous article, New database of US voter fraud finds no evidence that photo ID laws are needed.

By Jack Fitzpatrick and Khara Persad

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.

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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 either heard not much or nothing at all about voter ID laws.

Who can vote? A national News21 investigation of voting rights in America.
Is voting fraud a serious problem in American elections? Will new identification requirements at the polls disenfranchise prospective voters among minorities, college students or the elderly? Should ex-felons who've served their sentences be allowed to vote? Are voting machines reliable?

To report this series of articles, two dozen top student journalists from 11 universities are investigating the impact on American voters of recent changes in election laws and voting procedures in many of the 50 states.

The series is published by NBCNews.com.

“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.

Polling expert Phil Meyer, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he 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.

Wilson said most people haven’t heard as much about disenfranchisement as they have about alleged voter fraud because the media does not report on voter disenfranchisement.

“Until they see specific media accounts of how these things can disenfranchise voters, people won’t know much about that argument,” Wilson said.

A racial gap
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 the disenfranchisement that such laws could cause.

Cohen said these results show a stark racial divide that lines up with partisan divisions based on the questions asked.

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The Post found that 52 percent of whites were more concerned about voter fraud, compared with 26 percent of blacks; 67 percent of blacks cited more concern about voter disenfranchisement, compared with 40 percent of whites.

Meyer said the public is generally confused about the basic argument for voter-ID laws, which is that they would prevent voter fraud. Advocates for the laws, overwhelmingly Republican and conservative, cite fraud repeatedly, but have offered virtually no evidence to support this claim.

“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 it, "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 fraud versus disenfranchisement question.

“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 with 32 percent, respectively.

However, 62 percent of Democrats showed more concern for disenfranchisement, compared with 27 percent of Republicans.

Additionally, 59 percent of blacks and 41 percent of whites said support of voter-ID laws is an effort to boost one party by a good amount or a great deal.

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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.

Bipartisan support
The Post poll shows broad support for ID laws despite party affiliation, with support from 88 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats.

Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which opposes strict voter-ID laws, is concerned that polling on the issue misses many of the people most likely to be impacted.

“The people who don’t have ID are less likely to be captured by telephone polls,” she said. “They’re less likely to be people who answer telephone polls and less likely to have landlines.”

Weiser and Wilson say that many people supporting voter ID trust the government to apply the laws fairly.

“People are giving those who are pushing these laws the benefit of the doubt, because there must be a good reason for it,” Wilson said.

According to The Post poll, 48 percent of those surveyed say they 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.”

Racial resentment
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, show 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 is not surprising that Republicans have 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.

Nate Silver, a statistician who writes the FiveThirtyEight election and political blog for the New York Times, raised the stakes in the voter-ID debate in July, when he wrote about the possible impact of the laws on the presidential election.

After Pennsylvania’s strict ID law was passed in March, the Pennsylvania Department of State estimated that 758,939 — or 9 percent — of the state’s registered voters lacked driver’s licenses, and could be ineligible to vote under the new law.

Silver however, was more conservative in his analysis of likely impact. He said he expects Pennsylvania’s new voter-ID law to cause a 2.4 percent drop in turnout and said this would shift 1.2 percent of the vote to the Republican candidate in a traditionally Democratic state.

In a close election, Silver said, the voter-ID law could help likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama in Pennsylvania.

Dispute over effect of disenfranchisement
Silver said that estimates of potential voter disenfranchisement by civil-rights groups are inflated.

“People seize on the most dramatic number without necessarily telling the whole story,” he told News21.

Pennsylvania is not the only state which has had high estimates of potential disenfranchisement.

In a lawsuit over the Texas law, Harvard political science professor Stephen Ansolabehere testified that 1.5 million to 1.9 million voters do not have the state-issued ID required under the law, an estimate lawyers for Texas called flawed.

The Texas voter-ID law was blocked by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, and the state has sued to enforce the law.

Rulings in the Pennsylvania and Texas cases are expected in August.

Jack Fitzpatrick and Khara Persad were Hearst Foundations fellows this summer for News21.

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