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Chris Weigant

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Could Voter Suppression Laws Suppress Republican Votes?

Posted: 07/25/2012 8:54 pm

Welcome to that magic time of year when political junkies in the media get so frantic for stories they just start rampantly speculating on everything under the sun. This is a yearly contest to see who can come up with this year's "Silly Season" story that everyone else will obsess about for the entire month of August. What will it be this year? Mitt's "dancing horse" at the Olympics (as David Letterman has taken to calling it)? President Obama secretly plotting to (fill in the blank)?

Of course, while all that is going on, there will be serious stories with dramatic consequences in the political arena which will get short shrift (or no shrift at all) in the national media, as usual. One of the biggest of these non-silly stories this year is the trend towards voter suppression laws in states with inordinate amounts of Republicans in their state government. The comic Doonesbury has been brutally pointing this out all this week with a series of strips on a "Jim Crow tour" of America.

I'm not going to get into the main issue here, I should state. Voter suppression laws are a giant step backwards, and there are plenty of other commentaries out there which explain why. Instead, I'd like to focus on one aspect of the laws which everyone seems to be missing: who will be affected, and how this will affect the overall vote.

The targets of these Republican laws are two large demographics which have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic: minorities and young people. Of the citizens in America who do not have state photo identification, these two groups would be disproportionately affected. People who can't afford to take time off from their two jobs to stand in line at the D.M.V. (or simply cannot afford the fees), and young people who live where there is public transportation or for whatever reason have never gotten a driver's license. And college students, who may only have a student identification card -- which (in some of these states) is not enough to prove who you are at the polling station.

But there's another massive group of people who will also be affected by the new laws: the elderly. People who stopped driving years ago, for example. The thing about this group of folks is: they vote. They vote in numbers far outstripping younger American demographics. And, a lot of the time, they vote Republican.

So are the Republicans who have passed these laws actually hurting their own party's chances? I have two answers to that question, both of them unsatisfying: it's too soon to tell, and we may never actually know. It's too soon to tell, because with any new law on voting procedures, you can't accurately predict the outcome until after it happens. A lot of these laws have been passed since the last presidential election, therefore there simply is no data in these states on how voting patterns will change. It's all guesswork. Even after the election happens, we may never know the full answer of the impact of the voter suppression laws, because public opinion polling just isn't subtle enough to tease out such conclusions.

Think about it: how do the pundits all decide that "Issue X" or "Policy Y" is the reason for the election results of that year? Exit polling. And who do exit polls poll? Voters. Who don't they poll? People who didn't vote. Right there, that's a data problem. In attempting to figure out why a certain group of people didn't vote, if you don't question them about it, you're never going to have any realistic data to pore over.

Voter enthusiasm is down across the board from 2008. It usually is, in a re-election year. So it'll be hard to tell why certain demographics didn't turn out. And nearly impossible to accurately figure out how many of them didn't vote because they didn't have an ID, versus because they weren't excited about the candidates, were disillusioned in general about the political system, had to work, forgot to register, or any one of dozens of other reasons.

Which is a very long way of saying that even using figures is quite possibly meaningless and this entire article is nothing but mid-summer speculation on my part. Having said that, let's look at some numbers, anyway.

Figures from the book How Barack Obama Won by NBC's Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser allow us to at least look at the breakdown of the 2008 Obama vote, state by state. Let's take just two states that may be of critical importance this year: Ohio and Florida. Both have voter ID laws, although Ohio's is less strict than Florida's. Each state has passed slightly different rules for what constitutes acceptable identification, which makes such comparisons even more difficult.

Obama won Ohio by 51.5 percent to 46.9 percent -- a gap of 4.6 percentage points. People under 30 comprised 17 percent of the voting public, and people 65 or older comprised exactly the same amount. But their votes broke down differently. Young people voted for Obama over McCain 61-36 percent, but older people voted for McCain over Obama by only 55-44 percent. If an equal number of each group were disenfranchised by voter suppression, Obama would have lost more votes than McCain. Whether it would have made a difference would depend on how large a group got disenfranchised. The two groups make up 34 percent of Ohio's voters, and the gap was only 4.6 points, so it is an open question.

Florida, being a retirement destination, has different demographics. In 2008, Florida's youth made up 15 percent of the voters, while the elderly made up 22 percent. The voting gap is similar to Ohio's as the youth vote went 61-37 for Obama, while the seniors voted 53-45 for McCain. But because the percentages of the total vote for each group are different, the elderly vote would make more of a difference than in Ohio. Even this might not have helped Democrats, though, because 17 percent of the vote was from minorities -- who went overwhelmingly for Obama (Hispanic vote was 57-42 for Obama, and the black vote was a whopping 96-4 percent). Now, obviously, there is some overlap in the minority numbers, as you can be both minority and young (or old), but you cannot be both young and old at the same time (not counting the "young at heart," of course). Even with the overlap, though, Obama won Florida by only 2.6 percent. This is a very thin margin, and it is on thin margins that voter suppression may have its intended effect -- suppressing the Democratic vote.

But I'm going to end on an optimistic note for Democrats, today (remember, we're just rampantly speculating, here). Because Democrats can see this obstacle coming. They know full well that they're going to have some hoops to jump through in their "get out the vote" efforts in the states with new laws. So one would like to think there's an army of Democratic loyalists across the land who are avidly working to make sure that every Democratic voter they're counting on in November does indeed have the correct identification and is ready for the new rules at the polls. Outreach efforts to the minority community, to the young folks, and to the senior citizens should already be underway, in a big way. What is called "the ground game" in politics needs extra effort this year, to put it another way. The Democratic Party better realize this, and better already be fielding those armies in this ground game.

But what I wonder is whether the Republican Party is even paying attention. They passed these laws to bar Democrats from voting, after all, so they might be lulled into believing that every voter affected will be a Democrat. This is just not the case. There are a whole lot of older American voters who are in for a big surprise when they are turned away from the ballot box this year. Older Americans generally lean more Republican than the public in general. This means there may be more older Republican voters affected than the party apparatus realizes. If this is the case, the question has to be asked: could voter suppression efforts by Republicans actually wind up suppressing the Republican vote more than the Democratic vote?

Hey, I warned you this was sheer speculation. Make of it what you will.

 

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