Although recent court decisions might lead you to think otherwise, North Carolina voters are probably going to have to present photo identification to cast ballots in the near future. I’ll now explain why neither Democrats nor Republicans should expect such a rule to make much of a difference in electoral outcomes.
My prediction about the return of voter ID rests on two facts. First, whatever you think of the decision by federal appellate judges to strike down North Carolina’s omnibus election-law bill — I think it was an absurdity — it does not constitute some new judicial prohibition against voter ID requirements. Such rules are constitutional and commonplace.
Rather, the appellate judges concluded (by waving aside the trial court’s extensive findings of fact) that a bill combining voter ID, changes in early voting, and the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting constituted an intent on the part of North Carolina lawmakers to suppress minority votes.
If the General Assembly enacts a new measure focused on verification of voter identity, with appropriate provisions to get the word out and provide free IDs to those of modest means, it will match North Carolina law with that of other jurisdictions and thus render the (inevitable) legal challenge less effective.
The other reason I think voter ID is in North Carolina’s future is that most North Carolinians have favored it for years and continue to do so. In the Civitas Institute’s latest poll, for example, 68 percent of likely voters favored a photo ID requirement for voting, with 31 percent opposed. Almost as many, in fact, said they favored putting such a requirement in the state constitution.
The Civitas sample was hardly skewed in favor of conservatives and Republicans, by the way. It had President Donald Trump’s approval rating at 42 percent, Gov. Roy Cooper’s approval at 61 percent, and a substantial Democratic lead in the generic ballot for state legislature.
So if you think voter ID is nothing more than a partisan Republican plot that presents a great danger to the Democratic Party, you are out of step with most of your fellow North Carolinians and with most federal jurisprudence on the matter.
As it happens, you are also out of step with the preponderance of research on the subject. Most academic scholars have found little to no effect of voter-ID requirements on turnout, either in general or in the form of differentials between voting groups. As Benjamin Highton, a professor at the University of California at Davis, explained in in a new paper for the Annual Review of Political Science, the empirical evidence to date “does not substantiate” the concerns of Democratic partisans and liberal activists. “To the extent that sound evidence exists, it shows modest turnout effects and only minor differences across politically relevant groups,” Highton wrote.
Now, to say that apocalyptic warnings about voter ID are overblown is not to say that its proponents are always on solid ground. In fact, the same evidence cuts against extravagant claims that voter fraud — or at least the kind of fraud that ID requirements might deter — is extensive enough to explain recent electoral outcomes. If voter impersonation, for example, were a large-scale phenomenon, the instigation of ID requirements ought to have reduced turnout markedly when compared against previous elections or jurisdictions without voter ID.
In fact, only elections with razor-thin margins are likely to be affected by illegally cast ballots. And most illegally cast ballots involve voters who actually have IDs, such as felons, illegal aliens who drive, and people with dual residencies (although an ID provision can still be helpful as part of a system for detecting such behavior).
In my view, it is wise to take low-cost precautions against low-probability but high-cost events such as voter fraud. Such precautions could well include a properly administered set of photo ID rules, which many other states and nations employ and which most North Carolinians see as reasonable.
This issue simply does not merit the sound and fury of recent years.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.