The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whites are more supportive of voter ID laws when shown photos of black people voting

Sixty-seven percent of white Americans support voter ID laws, according to a new University of Delaware study of 1,436 U.S. adults. But when the voter ID question was accompanied by a photo of black people using a voting machine, white support for voter ID laws jumped to 73 percent.

That six-percentage-point difference is modest but statistically significant. The images made no difference to black and hispanic voters' preferences, although the authors note the sample sizes for those groups were considerably stronger.

Among white voters, “the resulting increase in support for the laws happens independently of — even after controlling for— political ideology and negative attitudes about African Americans,” researcher David C. Wilson said in a release about the study.

Many white Americans think racism is basically over, and some believe that racism against whites is actually a bigger problem than racism against blacks. But results like these show that racism is still very much active at the subconscious level.

Voter ID laws continue to enjoy broad support nationwide. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey showed that 79 percent of white registered voters and 62 percent of blacks said that voters should be required to show an official photo ID before they vote. Support was highest among Republicans (87 percent) and considerably lower among Americans ages 18 to 29 (64 percent).

Voter ID laws don't do anything to stop certain types of voter fraud, such as vote buying, coercion, fake registrations, voting from the wrong address or ballot box stuffing. The laws are useful in stopping identity fraud, though there is general agreement among political scientists that this type of fraud is rare.

Loyola Law School's Justin Levitt, writing in Wonkblog in August, found 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion votes cast since 2000. "Requirements to show ID at the polls are designed for pretty much one thing: people showing up at the polls pretending to be somebody else in order to each cast one incremental fake ballot," Levitt wrote. "This is a slow, clunky way to steal an election. Which is why it rarely happens."

But voter ID laws are very good at suppressing turnout, particularly turnout among groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as younger people and minorities. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that in 2012, voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee lowered voter turnout by several percentage points in those states, amounting to more than 120,000 fewer votes cast. Drops were steepest among the young, blacks and first-time voters.

The legal justification for voter ID laws stems from a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that the laws are generally applicable and nondiscriminatory, meaning that they're not meant to reduce turnout among a particular group. But studies this year have demonstrated strong evidence for discriminatory intent behind the laws. The University of Delaware study adds to this body of evidence.

It also seems that the judiciary is starting to agree: Courts have blocked the enactment of voter ID requirements in Wisconsin and Texas this year, citing these disproportionate impacts. Even more notably, Judge Richard Posner, the Ronald Reagan appointee whose 2008 ruling in favor of voter ID was upheld by the Supreme Court, has had a change of heart. In a blistering opinion released last week, he concludes that the case for voter ID laws is at odds with the evidence. He concludes:

There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.