Voter identification laws are cropping up around the country: 31 states had a voter identification requirement in the 2014 midterms, up from 14 states in 2000. These laws vary widely in the types of identification they accept, even in whether identification is required or merely requested. And many people don’t know whether they need identification to vote, or what type of identification to bring. Opponents argue that these laws disproportionately impact minority voters, who are less likely to have required identification. Our new research in this month’s American Political Science Review shows that minorities face another hurdle: bias in the bureaucracy that implements these laws. Roughly 8,000 local officials – county or municipal clerks and election boards – manage the nation’s election system. These officials train local poll workers, provide information, and interact with constituents with little immediate oversight from state officials.
Here is the problem: election officials themselves also appear to be biased against minority voters, and Latinos in particular. For example, poll workers are more likely to ask minority voters to show identification, including in states without voter identification laws.
Our experiment demonstrates another form of bias: how willingly election officials answer questions from voters.
In September 2012, we contacted essentially all local election officials with short e-mails asking questions about voting. These e-mails were identical except for the name of the sender. A randomly selected half of the officials in each state received e-mails from a Latino name like “Luis Rodriguez,” while the others received the same e-mails from a non-Latino white name like “Greg Walsh.” (A similar type of experiment has been used to measure discrimination in everything from housing markets to state legislatures.)