Report Finds Confusion Over Voter ID Law Kept People From the Polls, Too

The Texas Voter law, requiring voters to have a photo ID, may have kept some people from the polls in November 2014's general election — but mere confusion about the law may have kept away voters, too.

According to a new report released by public policy researchers at Rice University's Baker Institute and the University of Houston's Hobby Center, 13 percent of a sample of 400 nonvoters in U.S. Congressional District 23 said in a survey that they did not vote in part because they did not possess the proper photo ID. Six percent said not having a voter ID was their main reason for failing to go out to the polls.

But upon closer look, the researchers found that in reality, less than 3 percent of those nonvoters actually lacked the proper photo ID requirements. Meaning that somewhere along the way, nonvoters may have become needlessly confused about the voting law, causing them to incorrectly think they could not vote, said Mark Jones of Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Jones believes it was in part because the state failed to adequately educate the public, noting that the Texas Secretary of State posted something about the law on its website and seemed to do little else. “It wasn't through widespread public education television campaigns, or the use of other forms of visual media,” Jones said. “It was a  very modest public education campaign that was also very passive.”

U.S. Congressional District 23 covers southwestern Texas from El Paso to the outer suburbs of San Antonio. The researchers chose this district to study, Jones said, because of all of Texas's 36 districts, this one allowed for the most realistic chance of an actual competition between Republicans and Democrats in which Dems had a shot. Latinos make up 65.8 percent of the district's voting-age population and 73.4 percent of the district's nonvoters. In the survey, the researchers asked all nonvoters who they would have voted for had they gone to the polls. Forty percent of them would have voted for the Democratic candidate, Ruben Gallego, instead of Republican Will Hurd (another 40 percent would have voted for neither). Hurd had won the House seat by a 2-point margin.

Any fluctuation in voter turnout because of the voter ID law, as Jones put it, “could have been a difference maker." 

Jones called this report the “diagnosis” stage. The “remedy,” he says, is better public education about the law should it survive the courts. A panel of judges on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this week ruled the law violates the Voting Rights Act. The state is sure to appeal.

“I think it's crucial that we understand why somewhere between 6 and 13 percent of our nonvoters did not participate because they thought they didn't have the ID, when actually they had one in their possession,” Jones said. “We need to have a better understanding of how they interpreted the law and how we might design an education campaign to, if not eliminate, at least significantly reduce the confusion.”

Jones said he and his team are working on acquiring funding so that they can develop the most effective education campaign before the 2016 general election. 

So at least Jones and his team are working on helping the public better understand a complicated law that, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg put it, made Texas voting regulations “the strictest regime in the country." The question is why it takes a public policy school to spearhead the effort instead of the state officials who passed the law in the first place.

Update 11:45 a.m.: The Texas Secretary of State's Office disputes Mark Jones's claim about inadequate efforts by the state to educate the public on the voter ID law. "Contrary to the information from the study, in 2014 our agency spent $2 million on voter education efforts that included radio, television, print advertising as well as public relations efforts, social media outreach, and partnering with community groups," said spokeswoman Alicia Pierce.

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn