Voters hold up signs as they walk to an early-voting site in Miami on Aug. 11, 2014, to cast their ballots.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than a week later, we’re still trying to figure this one out: How much of an impact did voting restrictions have on the 2014 midterm elections?

And remember, voting restrictions don’t just mean the infamous voter-ID laws that we all know and Republicans love. Altogether, 21 states kept an array of voting restrictions in place for 2014, from making it tougher and more costly (pdf) to meet strict identification requirements to eliminating same-day registration and early voting. 

Voting, of course, should be easy. Yet when you make it as hard as a battlefield maze in “Call of Duty,” it’s bound to get ugly. Early reports suggest something amiss. “On average, states with photo-ID laws had 4.4 percent lower turnout. [Those with] non-photo-ID [laws] had 1.52 percent lower turnout,” notes Demos researcher Sean McElwee.

For hard numbers, the jury is still a bit out. “I don’t think we have enough data to answer your question, yet,” said Michael McDonald of the University of Florida’s Elections Project when The Root reached out. But he did reference Wendy Weiser at the Brennan Center, who observed troubling trends where “the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement” in a must-read blog on the topic.

Incidentally, Republicans and conservatives aren’t saying much about it. A normally loquacious Heritage Foundation didn’t return The Root’s request for comment. “I suppose where anyone can vote without proving who they are, there would be more [turnout],” conservative Houston Chronicle blogger Kathleen McKinley snapped back on Twitter. And Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro was blasting any move to “[a]mend the Constitution to guarantee the right to vote [as] a solution in search of a problem.” But … you could say the same about voter ID since it’s not like there’s a whole lot of voter fraud going around, right?

Advertisement

The Take turned to six leading experts for a deeper look:

Justin Levitt, Loyola Law School: A 93-year-old veteran in Texas was turned away at the polls. He did not have the kind of ID that Texas requires: the “right kind” of ID. There will be more stories and more numbers in the days ahead. But to ask “how much” of an impact the ID law had is the wrong question. It implies that unless the new ID rules changed the results of any particular race, or affected overall turnout, this veteran’s vote doesn’t matter. Instead, we should be asking whether the Texas law created a meaningful burden for people like this gentleman, and if so, whether Texas had a good-enough reason to send him home without accommodation.

Ifeoma Ike, Black and Brown People Vote: When I served on the Congressional Voting Rights Working Group two years ago, it was clear back then that recently enacted laws and strategies that changed how we vote were going to have a disproportionate impact on students, minorities and the elderly for elections to come. Last week we saw it all: missing registration cards in Georgia; purged rolls in Ohio; proof-of-citizenship requirements in Kansas; closed polling sites in North Carolina. Add the financial burden to those with restrictive means while attempting to remedy their identification handicap, and you’ve got a storm many of us knew was going to transpire.

Advertisement

Brandon Andrews, IMPACT: The cumulative effect of sweeping changes to voter-identification and early-voting standards across the country—well-intentioned or not—is confusion. State-led efforts to communicate changes and appropriate resources to equip citizens vary. However, our community has responded. Black voters in Georgia and Florida matched or outpaced early-vote numbers from the 2012 election. Current voter-identification laws will remain for the time being. Communicating, organizing and executing can ensure our community is engaged no matter what laws are on the books.

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law: Late court rulings in states with recent voting-law changes like North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin led to voter confusion because they were unclear of the status of the laws in their states. This became apparent in Texas where 26 percent of the calls to the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline were related to voter ID. The confusion surrounding was not limited to Texas, as many callers reported being asked to show ID in states without restrictive voter-ID laws or poll workers not accepting valid ID. Who knows how many eligible voters in states with new voting restrictions did not show up on Election Day because of unnecessary barriers to the ballot box?

Robert Santos, Urban Institute: Do these laws dampen voting? Of course they do! But that may not be the best question to ask because any restriction (even the need to be a registered voter or to be free from a felony conviction or not currently in prison) restricts the rights of those who would otherwise be eligible to cast a vote. It is better to ask whether the voter-ID laws unnecessarily restrict certain groups of people. Given that 41 states require no ID for absentee-ballot voting, and some states with voter-ID laws include exceptions, arguments could be made both ways on this issue. It is unfortunate, though, that states with higher fractions of minority registered voters—such as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia—appear to have the strictest voter-ID laws in place. That does not pass the smell test.

Advertisement

S. Chad Peace, Independent Voter Network: Voter ID has credible arguments on both sides with respect to the Republicans’ call for honest elections, and the Democrats’ concern for open access. The impact of voter ID on outcome this past election was minimal. The larger voting-rights issue is one less talked about. Both parties are actively going to court to prevent nonpartisan voters from participating in primary elections and taking advantage of a public-election system conducted for the private benefit of their decreasingly popular parties. In New Jersey, for example, 47 percent of voters (a plurality) are unaffiliated with either party. Yet the taxpayers fund, administer and sanction primary elections that they are precluded by law from participating in. This is important because the “real” election most often occurs in the primary. In New Jersey, for example, the closest statewide election had a margin of 11 percent.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.