Over the past 12 years nearly 20 U.S. states have adopted voter photo identification laws, which require voters to show a picture ID to vote. These laws have been challenged in numerous lawsuits, resulting in a variety of court decisions and, in several instances, revised legislation. Supporters argue that photo ID rules are necessary to safeguard the sanctity and legitimacy of the voting process by preventing people from impersonating other voters. They say that essentially every U.S. citizen possesses an acceptable photo ID, or can relatively easily get one. Opponents argue that that’s not true; that laws requiring voters to show photo ID disenfranchise registered voters who don’t have the accepted forms of photo ID and can’t get one easily. Further, they say, these laws confuse some registered voters, who therefore don’t bother to vote at all. Opponents also point out that there are almost no documented cases of voter impersonation fraud. Supporters counter that without a photo ID requirement, we have no idea how much fraud there might be.
We conducted surveys in Texas this year to investigate these arguments. Our study found that virtually all eligible non-voters — that is, people who could have but didn’t vote — possessed a valid photo ID. But not many really understood the photo ID regulations.
November 2016 was Texas’s second general election with photo ID rules in force. Through the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, in February and early March we surveyed a representative sample of Texans who were registered to vote but did not (let’s call them non-voters) in the state’s two highest-profile battlegrounds. In Harris County (population: 4.6 million), which includes Houston, 39 percent of the registered voters did not cast ballots. And in West Texas’s 23rd Congressional District (CD-23), where incumbent Republican Will Hurd won by only 3,051 votes in a hard-fought campaign, 45 percent of registered voters did not go to the polls. The surveys were in English and Spanish.