Study Finds Confusion About Voter ID Kept Some Voters Home

Most Registered Voters Could Have Complied but Did Not Understand Law

Researchers considering the impact of the Texas voter ID legislation on the 2016 general election report that confusion over the law kept some people from voting, although most registered voters could have complied.

Latino voters were affected most significantly.

The study by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs was released Monday, offering an in-depth look at registered voters who sat out the 2016 election in the state’s highest-profile battlegrounds: Harris County and Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso.

“Almost all registered voters who did not turn out to vote in 2016 possessed a valid photo ID, and virtually no one was prevented from voting because they didn’t have one of the state-approved forms of photo ID needed to cast a vote in person,” said Mark P. Jones, co-principal investigator on the study and a research associate at the Hobby School. “However, these registered voters were poorly informed about the photo ID regulations in force.”

That matters, said Jones, political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, because those regulations serve as the foundation for revised ID legislation that is scheduled for debate Monday afternoon in the Elections Committee of the Texas House of Representatives.

The law has been controversial, with the U.S. Department of Justice charging it was enacted with the intent of discriminating against minority voters; the department backed off that claim after President Donald Trump took office, and it now says efforts in the Texas Legislature to rework the law should be allowed to proceed.

Among the findings of the Hobby School study:

  • 37 percent of registered voters in Harris County and 45 percent of those in Congressional District 23 did not vote in 2016. About 14 percent of those nonvoters – one in seven – said lack of a state-approved photo ID was one reason they did not vote.
  • But 97 percent of those registered nonvoters in Harris County had an unexpired, state-approved photo ID, as did 98 percent of those in Congressional District 23.

Renee Cross, associate director of the Hobby School and co-principal investigator of the study, said the research offers several lessons.

“Our findings indicate that the state’s voter education efforts failed to reach a number of registered voters in 2016, and some of those votes might have affected down-ballot races,” she said. “In order to overcome the confusion for 2018, a well-designed, funded and implemented public education effort is sorely needed.”

But it isn’t solely up to the state, she said. “Others who believe in the value of strong voter participation – educators, nonprofit directors, business leaders and candidates – also need to step up.”

Lack of a state-approved photo ID kept almost no one – just one nonvoter among the 819 surveyed – from voting in 2016. But only about 20 percent of nonvoters had a good understanding of the rules.

And Latino nonvoters were significantly less likely than Anglo and Harris County African-American non-voters to have an accurate understanding. Latinos in both locations were also significantly more likely to believe the photo ID rules were more restrictive than they actually were.