Why Democrats Are Losing the Voter-ID Message War

Democrats have yet to counteract the Republicans’ voter-ID narrative—or their polling—even though most African Americans oppose new voter-ID laws when they catch on to what they are.

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Voters prepare to cast their ballots at the North Miami Public Library on Nov. 1, 2012, after standing in line in North Miami, Fla.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Voter-ID laws must not be all that bad if black folks like them, right?

That’s the new political wolf ticket that the Republican rank and file want you to buy. Conservative activists, as jumpy as So You Think You Can Dance contestants, have hit the media trail with their latest talking point: Black folks heart voter ID, courtesy of freshly baked polling numbers, courtesy of Fox News—the king of unapologetically biased networks. 

Per Fox, 51 percent of African Americans are down with voter ID when they’re asked: “Supporters of these laws say they are necessary to stop ineligible people from voting illegally. Opponents say these laws are unnecessary and mostly discourage legal voters from voting. What do you think?” 

And Republicans are, predictably, elated with the results, produced by this feat of leading questions and survey chicanery. Polls, after all, validate political narratives—if you word your question right, folks will tell you the sky is red. Flacks use them to raise money and win elections.

Polls won’t, however, point you in the direction of that other poll showing that way fewer whites feel the Voting Rights Act is necessary. Nor will they show the North Carolina PPP poll (pdf) that showed 72 percent of African Americans strongly oppose voter-ID laws—in a state that’s 25 percent black.

The Fox poll offers a dangerously legit-looking way to give mostly Republican state legislators ammunition for an amazingly misleading “we told you so” on voter ID. The message, beyond the numbers, suggests there’s nothing wrong with rigging, complicating and corrupting a relatively decent voting system that’s precariously fragile from years of abuse.  

The larger problem isn’t so much the poll, or what it’s attempting to prove, as it is the pimped assumption that respondents actually understand what they’re answering. Not insulting the intelligence of the 51 percent of black voters who said, “Yes,” but simply pointing out that we can never assume that most citizens—regardless of color—have fully analyzed the contours of a voter-ID debate.

At best, particularly during low-turnout congressional midterms, only 1 percent of the population truly pays attention or is politically active beyond a quick trip to their polling precinct. A recent Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found that “just 12 percent of Americans engaged in more than three activities ‘very often,’ an indication that civic and political engagement—other than voting in elections—is occasional and narrow.”

In other words, you could put a stick of dynamite next to the Fox poll by first asking, Do you know what voter ID is? They didn’t ask that question, and we haven’t really seen it posed since a Washington Post poll in 2012 discovered that 51 percent didn’t know much about it. This is especially prevalent in the context of these off-year elections, where, sadly, many nonactive voters can’t identify their own House member.

Republicans have been hugely successful at leveraging that unfortunate reality of American civic life. That puts Democrats in a real pickle heading into the midterm cycle. You’ve already got restrictive voter-ID laws in 16 states. Bad enough for them that their voters wouldn’t know a congressional election if someone threw a yard sign in their eye. Worse that Republicans are significantly more skilled at messaging and brand crafting than their rivals on the left.