A Peach of a Law? The Impact of Voter ID Laws in Georgia

by Jennifer Murray

January 10, 2014

Cover Photo Credits

The latest voter identification proposal in North Carolina has brought Georgia’s own voter ID law back into the spotlight. The law, which took effect in September 2007, requires voters to show one of six possible forms of photo identification at the polling place, including a free state-issued voter identification card.

Despite internal misgivings, the U.S. Department of Justice approved the law in 2005, allowing for a statewide social science experiment to go forward. Due to past voting discrimination offenses, Georgia had to submit any changes to their voting procedure to the Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (a practice that the Supreme Court recently deemed unconstitutional). The law again passed muster with the U.S. District Court after legislators added a provision offering free state-issued photo IDs, and after the administration conducted a wide spread media out-reach to inform citizens about the new law.

Critics, including those at the Department of Justice, have argued that this stringent measure will dilute the minority vote, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Has this really been the case?  Here are the findings:

Georgia Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp presented evidence regarding the state’s voter turnout trends at the 2012 Civitas Conservative Leadership Conference in North Carolina. The presentation revealed that turnout among Hispanics and African-Americans increased since the law was implemented.

Georgia election data records verify that minority participation increased dramatically in the 2008 presidential election, the year after the voter ID law was implemented. While turnout among whites increased only 8%, black voter turnout increased by 42%.  Hispanic turnout increased even more dramatically by 140%, and turnout among Asians increased by 76% in 2008. Oddly, in the 2012 presidential election, turnout among white and black voters fell by 5% and 1% respectively. This was not the case, though, for Hispanic and Asian voters whose turnout increased by 19% and 9% respectively.

But this does not quite match up with national estimates. According to a Census Bureau report on voter turnout by race, approximately 1.7 million more black voters reported voting in the 2012 election than in the 2008 election. This means that national black turnout increased 10% from the 2008 election to the 2012 election. While in Georgia, black voter turnout fell by 1% during this same time period.

However, white voter turnout does appear to mimic the recent national estimates. Nationally, turnout among whites fell by 2% from 2008 to 2012, compared to a 5% drop in Georgia. National voter turnout among Asians increased by 21% in 2008 and 16% in 2012. For Hispanics, voter turnout increased more modestly at the national level than in Georgia; Turnout had increased by 28% in 2008 and 15% in 2012.

In other words, it is difficult to glean an accurate analysis about the impact of the voter ID law on voter turnout from the 2008 election results alone, as Secretary Kemp’s presentation may suggest. After all, 2008 was a historic election, and the following presidential election in 2012 did not sustain the same dynamic voter turnout results in Georgia.

The turnout rate of those who voted out of all registered voters paints an even messier picture. In 2004, the percentage of people who voted among those registered topped 67% for Asians and 61% for Hispanics, but this rate has been falling steadily for both groups in subsequent presidential elections. No data about these two groups were available for the 2000 election. Voter turnout among black registered voters peaked in 2008 at 76%, and then fell back in 2012 to 73%. Similar to Hispanics and Asians, the rate of turnout among whites peaked at 80% in 2004, and then fell in later elections.

It appears that the voter ID law may not have much impact on blacks in 2008, or that perhaps the historic election of Senator Barack Obama galvanized those voters to come out to the polls, despite tougher restrictions in place. But, black voter turnout in Georgia did not mirror the national black turnout trend in 2012, which the drop in the black voter turnout rate in 2012 further illustrates. Also, the turnout for Hispanics and Asians among those who are registered has been falling, despite increasing numbers overall.

It is tempting to look at the success of the voter turnout for the 2008 election as an indicator that the voter ID law did not preclude voters from heading to the polls. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom argued in their opinion piece, “Voter ID laws are good for democracy”, that in the 2008 election, Democratic turnout increased more in Indiana than in any other state, while it’s voter ID law was in effect. But other researchers are less confident. In their 2009 study on the impact of Indiana’s voter ID law, Michael Pitts and Matthew Neumann argued that, “the presence of the historic candidacy of President Obama may make the 2008 election cycle unrepresentative of a “typical” election cycle.”

For Georgia, the changes in voter turnout from the 2008 election to the 2012 election and the decline in voter turnout among registered voters suggest that more information may be needed to determine whether this law is a peach or just a lemon.

Jennifer Murray is a second year graduate student in the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy at William & Mary.