How Many Have Been Affected by Texas' Voter ID Law? It's Hard to Say

Feb 26, 2016

This year’s presidential election is in full swing, and the state's voter ID law in full effect. But, believe it or not, there are no stats on how many legal voters are being kept from the polls because they don't have a photo ID. Nearly five years after the state’s law was passed, nobody seems to know how to come up with a number.

Once upon a time, we did have a number—or at least we thought we did. During one of the many court hearings centered on the law, a judge told the state to come up with a number. So, state officials said 500,000 people, a figure calculated by cross-referencing the state’s voter rolls with a list of folks who have driver’s licenses or personal ID cards.

“Those databases were never meant to be put together,” says Alicia Pierce with the Texas Secretary of State’s office. She says that number is not exactly an accurate snapshot of the law’s impact.

“Because we are doing a massive exercise with two non-standardized databases, it can create a false impression that maybe more people don’t have a photo ID, when that’s not true,” she says.

Pierce says some of the 500,000 did have a state-issued photo ID. Even though that number is unreliable, it’s pretty much the only number out there. So, when people talk about the law’s impact, that’s all there is. John Oliver weighed in on the Voter ID laws on a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight.”

“Because not everyone has ID,” Oliver said. “In Texas alone, at least half a million registered voters do not have the form of ID necessary to vote."

But it’s not just state officials who don’t know what that number really is either. Professor Bruce Buchanan at the University of Texas at Austin says basically, no one knows.

“Nobody knows for sure, because most of us have not done careful research or seen the published work of people who have,” Buchanan says.

It’s important to note, though, that this doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who won’t vote because of the law. In fact, Buchanan says, research shows there are people affected more than others when these kinds of laws are passed.

A Rice University and University of Houston study released last year found the law "depressed turnout in the 2014 election" in Texas, study author Mark P. Jones told the Texas Tribune, through "confusion." And a University of California-San Diego study released earlier this month found that minority voter turnout waned in states with voter ID laws between 2008 and 2012.

“The presumption always is that voter ID laws discourage voting because some folks who have to acquire these IDs either have less motivation or less easy access to the machinery of filling out forms and such that they would need to acquire such IDs,” he says.

Buchanan points out there are already a bunch of people who don't vote in Texas. Pierce says the Secretary of State’s office isn’t seeing any large-scale problems where people who want to vote can’t. If potential voters don’t have a photo ID, the state has a process for folks to obtain an election identification certificate.

However, Pierce says, those aren’t in high demand. Buchanan argues that’s because this law is likely affecting potential voters who have already self-selected out of the voting process. But, there’s still no good answer.