Researchers at the University of Houston surveyed registered voters who didn’t vote last fall and who live in Harris County or in the state’s 23rd Congressional district, both of which saw closely fought races. In both places, nearly 60 percent of respondents (58.4% in Harris County, which is greater Houston, and 59.7% in the 23rd district, a sprawling district that runs from San Antonio to El Paso in west Texas) incorrectly believed that they needed one of the photo IDs allowed by the ID law to vote.
Texans, especially those who are Latino, remain alarmingly unfamiliar with the state’s voter ID rules, a reality that’s keeping some from casting a ballot, a revealing new study suggests.
The findings, from researchers at the University of Houston, offer the latest evidence that voting restrictions often do as much harm by generating voter confusion as by disenfranchising those who actually lack ID. Paradoxically, this confusion may become a particular problem when courts, in an effort to ensure access, loosen voting rules in the run-up to an election.
But the study’s clearest takeaway is that states that pass restrictive voting laws—and not only Texas—aren’t doing nearly enough to educate would-be voters about them.
It’s hard to blame them: It was true up until last summer, and it was the message Texas conveyed to voters for several years after the law’s 2011 passage, including through polling place signs like this one. But last August, after a federal court found the law discriminated against minorities, it was softened by allowing those without an accepted ID to vote as long as they signed an affidavit swearing to their identity and showed one of several supporting documents.
Researchers for the study also asked respondents to say which of three statements most accurately described the rules in effect last fall: All voters had to show a state-approved form of photo ID; no voters had to show photo ID; or, voters who had a state-approved form of ID wee required to show it, but those who lacked one could vote by signing an affidavit and showing one of several supporting documents.
Fewer than one in five respondents (21.1% in Harris County, 17.9% in the 23rd district) accurately chose the final statement.
Latinos were especially likely not to know the answer. Only around 15% in both places answered correctly, while about 25% of Anglos and 27.9% of Harris County African-Americans did so. (African-Americans weren’t broken out into their own category in the 23rd district, likely because there weren’t enough of them.)
“The uninformed and misinformed state of the non-voting electorate in 2016 highlights the need for a more robust state-sponsored voter education campaign,” the study’s authors write.
This voter confusion and ignorance comes after Texas’s public education efforts last fall were found to be inadequate if not outright misleading. When she added the affidavit option for voters without ID in August, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ordered that Texas spend $2.5 million on a public education campaign to let voters know about it. But a month later, lawyers for the plaintiffs charged that the state was offering “inaccurate or misleading information” about the rules, leading Gonzales Ramos to order the state to rewrite press releases and other materials.
Exactly how many people were kept from the polls by the ID law or by the surrounding confusion is harder to tease out. Around 2.4% of respondents lacked acceptable ID under the law, the study found. And only one person of the 819 total surveyed both lacked an acceptable ID and said this lack of ID was the main thing that kept them from voting.
But Harris County and the 23rd district may have higher rates of ID ownership than the state as a whole: The federal court, relying on an expert study done by a Harvard professor for the plaintiffs challenging the law, found that over 608,000 registered voters state-wide—around 4.3% of all registered voters at that time—lacked acceptable ID.
Then there’s the confusion issue. Though the study found the actual rate of ID ownership was much higher, around 15% of respondents signaled that lacking a state-approved photo ID was one reason they didn’t vote.
Around two thirds of those people would have voted Democratic, meaning that if they’d all voted, Democrat Pete Gallego would have won the race for the 23rd district, rather than losing to Republican Will Hurd by 1.3%. (A 2015 study by the same University of Houston researchers found similar evidence that the law may have likewise tipped the 2014 Hurd-Gallego race to the GOP.)
But that doesn’t mean we can say the ID law cost Democrats a congressional seat. When asked to give the principal reason why they didn’t vote, only around 0.5% of respondents in the recent study—that is, two people out of the 395 residents of the 23rd district surveyed—cited lack of ID.
What to make of all this?
On-the-ground reports from last fall’s election seemed to bear out the plaintiffs’ fears that Texas hadn’t done enough to ensure that voters knew the rules. And the new study appears to confirm it.
But the issue goes beyond Texas. That $2.5 million worked out to about 17 cents per registered voter—far more than the roughly 8 cents per registered voter Wisconsin spent to publicize its own strict ID law.
And, as we’ve reported, Iowa’s ID bill, which passed in its final form Thursday, would allocate a paltry $50,000, or around 2.3 cents per registered voter, to the combined costs of public education and poll-worker training—another crucial task for ensuring things go smoothly on the ground. That’s only about 5% of what would be needed for just one mailing to every registered voter, opponents of the bill have said. And that’s even though the bill represents a sweeping overhaul of the state’s voting system that goes far beyond voter ID.
Bottom line: The evidence is mounting that states aren’t doing nearly enough to ensure people understand how to exercise their most basic right of citizenship. And that failure appears to be making restrictive voting laws even mote harmful than they need to be.