Cynthia M. Allen

Will new study lead to truce on voter ID, suppression?

A sign tells voters of voter ID requirements before participating in the 2016 primary election at Sherrod Elementary school in Arlington.
A sign tells voters of voter ID requirements before participating in the 2016 primary election at Sherrod Elementary school in Arlington. AP

It’s been several weeks now since Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s alarmist announcement that 95,000 noncitizens have matching voter registration records, and that as many as 58,000 of them have voted — possibly illegally — at some point since 1996.

Despite this, Attorney General Ken Paxton, always quick for the draw, has not taken any legal action against them.

Why? Because the list, as its early critics contended, had big problems, included names of naturalized citizens, and was more likely the result of faulty government data than systemic voter fraud.

But it sure was a delicious little nugget that fed the voter fraud narrative just long enough to raise some cash for the state Republican Party, I’m sure.

That’s not to say that voter fraud is a myth. Tarrant County has prosecuted a number of high-profile cases in the last several years, and ballot box stuffing certainly has its own sordid history in Texas.

Voter fraud, when it occurs, is a serious crime. An illegal vote negates a legal one, and that is its own form of voter suppression. Recent elections remind us that even a handful of votes can make a difference; this is especially true in local elections.

However, the reality remains that systemic voter fraud of the kind Whitley and Paxton are implying, does not appear to occur here in Texas. At least, they have presented little solid evidence to suggest it does.

But while we’re dispelling myths about illicit voting practices, a new, comprehensive study from economists Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons smashes another big one: the theory that voter ID laws suppress minority turnout.

The study, one of the largest to date, analyzed the impact of state voter ID laws between 2008-2016, and concluded that even strict ID laws “have no significant negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any subgroup defined by age, gender, race, or party affiliation.”

That’s a big finding, although it shouldn’t be.

Just as fears of voter fraud often drive the conservative election narrative, claims of widespread voter suppression — usually through the use of voter ID requirements — animate the left, even while the evidence to support such theories has long been ambiguous. At best, it’s been a convenient talking point adopted by a political party that increasingly finds its identity in imagined discrimination.

Democrats have assailed state legislative bodies that pass picture ID laws as agents of oppression, arguing they reduce turnout and harm minority voters. In Texas, such arguments even convinced a court to strike down the state’s voter ID law and force the Legislature to loosen ID requirements.

Even so, the study’s conclusion contradicts such arguments and is quite blunt in this regard: “Most importantly,” the authors wrote, voter ID laws “do not decrease the participation of ethnic minorities relative to whites” — even in cases where strict photo ID laws are enforced.

If the study holds up — and given its nature, modeling and size, it seems likely to — it blows enormous holes through progressive voter suppression theories. More importantly, it should be of encouragement to voters and help reduce any public anxiety around voter ID laws.

Still, conservatives eager for total affirmation of voter ID laws should keep their powder dry. The study authors also found that such laws have “no significant impact on fraud or public confidence in election integrity,” a finding that weakens one of the strongest arguments for implementing these laws in the first place.

All this suggests addressing barriers to voting and ensuring the general integrity of the voting system will require other measures, perhaps even some around which conservative and liberals can build a consensus. This study gives them good reason to do that.

It also gives the political extremes good reason to cease repeating tired talking points that are increasingly irrelevant.