Elections Expert Questions Controversial Voter ID Study

Study author defends methodology, but tells MacIver election result would be the same

MacIver News Service | September 27, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis…] A new study suggests Wisconsin’s voter ID law dissuaded thousands of potential Wisconsin voters in the liberal bastions of Dane and Milwaukee counties from casting ballots in the November presidential election.

But perhaps the study’s most troubling number is its minuscule response rate, according to nationally renowned elections expert Hans von Spakovsky.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Ken Mayer’s analysis, released this week, asserts at least 16,800 voting-age residents in the two counties did not vote because of the law.

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What’s buried at the bottom of the mainstream media’s screaming voter disenfranchisement stories is the extrapolation game Mayer plays with the numbers.

The political science professor sent out 2,400 surveys to residents registered to vote but identified as not having cast ballots in November. Mayer received 293 responses. A total of nine respondents claimed voter ID exclusively kept them from voting.

“That’s not sufficient for a ballot poll. That’s too small a sample to give you any validity,” said von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative and senior legal fellow of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Asked if the sample is representative enough, Mayer said the short answer is yes. The study examines nonvoters. The pollsters estimate that population is about 160,000 people total within the two counties.

“In polling terms, that’s a small number,” Mayer told MacIver News Service. “With a population of 160,000, 293 (respondents) is enough to give you a reasonable margin of error.” Had the study involved all Wisconsin nonvoters, the number of responses would have significantly driven up the margin of error, impacting the study’s validity, the professor said.

But there’s still a whole lot of extrapolating going on with the numbers as-is.

Von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Elections Commission, said the study appears to be another flawed attempt to show what myriad studies have shown: voter ID laws do not suppress voter turnout.

One of those studies, published in 2016 by the Heritage Foundation, examined the “faulty data” that have fueled the anti-voter ID movement.

“Policymakers and the public deserve the truth about the relatively small universe of affected voters, not inflammatory assertions that hundreds of thousands or millions of voters are going to be negatively affected by such laws,” the Heritage study stated. The overview further notes press accounts have not accurately reported on the statistics.

“For example, even though both the data and reasoning used by a Wisconsin district court judge were later criticized as ‘questionable’ by the Seventh Circuit (Court of Appeals), the statistics cited by that judge are sill widely circulated by ID opponents and by media outlets such as MSNBC in reports about photo ID in Wisconsin,” wrote Don Palmer, former secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections and Director of Elections in Florida. Palmer also has served as an attorney in the Voting Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Liberal politicians particularly like to massage the numbers. Exhibit A: U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), who has made the audacious claim that first-time use of photo ID in Wisconsin elections caused a 200,000 voter drop in turnout. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Politifact, generally gentle on liberal pols, gave Baldwin a “Mostly False” for that claim. The Washington Post’s fact-checker department gave the senator three Pinocchios.

The biggest problem with studies such as the UW-Madison’s survey is that they lack context. As the Post noted in its Fact Checker piece, voter ID studies should include an important caveat: “Many factors – including even weather on Election Day – affect turnout. It’s difficult to isolate specific reasons for increased or decreased turnout. So readers should be skeptical of politicians who attribute one specific factor to turnout.”

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Many of the respondents in Mayer’s study said the law had nothing to do with why they didn’t vote. Some said they were sick on Election Day. Others felt discouraged by politics and politicians in general. And more didn’t like the candidates on the ballot.

The latter reason drives home what Gov. Scott Walker said after the Presidential election.

“People didn’t turn out in Milwaukee because Hillary Clinton was not an aspirational candidate for them. It’s that simple,” the Republican governor said.

Here’s another caveat tied to Mayer’s study: It was commissioned by Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, a liberal and outspoken critic of the state’s voter ID law.

“There has been a lot of legislation that has passed that has made it harder to vote, and instead of just working with anecdotal evidence or assumptions, we will see who has been most affected,” McDonell told the Sun Prairie Star in October, weeks before winning another term.

Mayer also served as an expert witness for anti-voter ID plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state.

He said he knows “Republicans” will read what they will into the background, but he approached the study purely in the interest of science.

“What I can say is, I would go into federal court, be sworn under oath, and say I did not conduct this study looking for results,” he said, adding that McDonell had no input in how the study was conducted. Both, Mayer said, were seeking answers to an “empirical question.”

“If the numbers had come out and they said the number is zero (respondents saying they were deterred by voter ID), that’s what we would have reported,” the political scientist contends.

Von Spakovsky isn’t so sure. While courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have found voter ID laws constitutional, the left isn’t giving up one of its key political talking points – no matter the facts.

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“Voter ID has been upheld in state courts across the country because those courts have found there was no evidence that it suppressed turnout,” the elections expert said.

A total of 34 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty-two of the voter ID laws are in force in 2017.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed the state’s voter ID law in 2011, but it remained blocked for years through a series of challenges by progressive groups.

Proponents say the laws provide a critical voter integrity check at the polls, preventing and discouraging voter fraud. While critics, like Mayer, insist voter fraud is nearly non-existent, an array of studies shows a more widespread problem than the left cares to acknowledge.

Mayer asserts there is a good deal of confusion about Wisconsin’s law, serving as another barrier to voters, particularly in African-American communities.

Last year, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved $250,000 for a voter ID education campaign. And the state’s system allows provisional ballots.

For those looking to draw conclusions on the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin, don’t. Mayer said his extrapolated numbers of “deterred” voters would not have changed the election results. In short, Hillary Clinton still lost long-blue Wisconsin to Donald Trump.