The key finding in the voter ID ruling

    Will the Pennsylvania voter ID law prevent fraud, or prevent qualified voters from casting ballots?

    I think the answer is yes to both, but the proportions matter a lot. Good public policy should weigh benefits against harm.


    All the evidence I’ve seen says that voter impersonation, the kind of fraud that voter ID would catch, is exceptionally rare. Not zero, but rare.

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    The tougher question how many qualified, willing voters might be shut out of an election because of the new requirement. A few months back, there were headlines that 758,000 registered voters in the state might lack necessary photo identification.

    That was based on a computer match between the state voter registry and records in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and it’s clear now it’s not a reliable number.

    Counting the disenfranchised

    The plaintiffs challenging the voter ID law gave the court its own estimate of how many voters might lack ID, based on a study done by Matt Barreto from the University of Washington.

    Rather than relying on shaky databases, he conducted a telephone survey of 1,285 eligible voters in the state. His callers asked if people they knew of the law and whether they had ID. If respondents said they did, the caller followed with a series of questions to determine what kind of ID they had.

    The survey found that just about all eligible voters think they have a valid photo ID, but that many of them are wrong. It concluded that 12.8 percent of registered voters didn’t have them, and that 12.6 percent of voters who cast ballots in 2008 lacked them.

    The last finding was striking to me. I always figured that by and large, the people who vote carry ID.

    Remember that even in a presidential election, fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters bother to vote. It seems to me that voters tend to be people connected to other institutions that require ID’s – employers, banks, etc.

    But if Barretto is right, roughly 757,000 Pennsylvanians who voted in 2008 lack acceptable photo ID.

    I did notice that about a third of those in Baretto’s study who were found not to have valid ID actually did have an acceptable photo ID, but in a name that didn’t exactly match the name on their voter registration card. Though the law says the ID must “substantially conform” to their voter registry, I have to believe most of those folks will get the okay in a polling place.

    Still, if the methodology is valid, that leaves a lot of committed voters whose franchise is jeopardized.

    So I was interested to see how the judge in the case would evaluate the study.

    The answer is no

    Judge Robert Simpson couldn’t have been clearer on what he thought of Baretto’s study and his testimony:

    “Parts of this testimony were believable. For the most part, however, his opinions were not credible or were given only little weight. There were numerous reasons for this, including demeanor, bias (see Pet’rs’ Ex.16), and a lack of knowledge of Pennsylvania case law regarding name conformity. In addition, I had doubts about his survey design: name conformity inquiry; oversampling; post-stratification weighting, especially with regard to age and gender; and overarching design for “eligible” voters, as opposed to “registered” voters. Also, I had doubts about the survey  execution: response rate; and timing (June 21 through July 2, 2012).”

    It’s not clear exactly what he means by all that, but it would be interesting to get Simpson and Barreto into a Pennsylvania Cable Network studio to debate this. Interesting to me, at least.

    You can read Barreto’s report here, and Judge Simpson’s opinion here.

    And if you’re a real glutton for this, you might listen to my interviews that aired Wednesday on Fresh Air. I spoke to State Rep. Darryl Metcalfe, prime sponsor of the Pennsylvania voter ID law, and Nate Persily of Columbia University, one of the top national experts on voting and election law. You hear those interviews here.

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