By Will Flanders and Rick Esenberg
September 29, 2017
Earlier this week, professors at the University of Wisconsin–Madison made national news, including a story in the New York Times, with the claim that that nearly 17,000 potential Wisconsin voters had been “deterred” by the state’s voter-ID law.
All the usual suspects responded on cue, repeating all the expected talking points, with the clerk of Milwaukee County suggesting that the survey shows that “Jim Crow laws are alive and well.”
Someone should have asked some hard questions, because the survey proves nothing of the sort. Part of this is due to methodological flaws, such as sample selection bias. But the most egregious error is how the media and scholars are using this study to push a narrative that voter-ID laws suppressed turnout in the 2016 election. The study itself does not support this conclusion.
Here’s why: The survey — which was funded with tax dollars by an elected Democrat in left-of-liberal Madison — was mailed to 2,400 people in the Democratic strongholds of Dane and Milwaukee counties who were registered but did not vote. It asked respondents why they did not vote. Very few of the people who received the survey responded, and of those did respond, about 30 said it was because they thought they lacked a proper form of ID. This number was extrapolated into the larger number with the unstated claim that almost all of them would have voted for Hillary Clinton.
Among those who did respond, the main reason cited for not voting was that they were “unhappy with choice of candidates or issues” (33 percent chose this). After that, other reasons for not voting include being ill, out of town, not interested, otherwise occupied, or believing that their vote did not matter.
Only 1.7 percent of respondents believed that they did not have an adequate photo ID, and 1.4 percent claimed to have actually been turned away at the polling place (which might have been related to ID). Put another way, the main reason for not voting cited by somewhere between 95 and 98 percent of the respondents was unrelated to the voter-ID law. Yet the New York Times headline reads: “Wisconsin Strict ID law Discouraged Voters, Study Finds.”
Well, yes, it may have discouraged a few. But Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seemed to have discouraged many times more. When almost all non-voters had other reasons — “I was ill,” “I was gone,” “It doesn’t matter” — it is dangerous to assume that even those who cited voter ID as the “main reason” would have voted if not for the law.