Monday, July 30, 2012

Should you believe these numbers?

More than 282,000 Philadelphians are on the "no id" or "expired id" lists compiled by the Pennsylvania Secretary of State's office.

But Bob Warner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a very good story July 29, reported that when reporters called voters from the "no id" list, large numbers of people said they in fact had driver's licenses. This raises the question of whether the "no id" list contains mainly false hits and therefore overstates the magnitude of the Voter ID problem.
Exact details of how the list was put together have not been disclosed, but here is what has been reported:

-- The state's database of registered voters was compared against the Department of Transportation's list of driver's licenses and non-license IDs. Voter's names, and presumably dates of birth, were compared to the driver records. Voters who couldn't be found in the PennDOT database were added to the "no id" list, totaling 758,000, or about 1 in 11 Pennsylvania voters.

-- Weeks later, the Secretary of State released a second list, the "expired id" list of 574,000 voters who did match the PennDOT license database but whose IDs have expired in 2011 and can't be used to vote in November. This group also will need new IDs or they can't vote in November.

Here are some thoughts about this from someone who has been working with the data for a few weeks.

1) The people who told the Inquirer they have licenses might still have a problem on Election Day if their name on their license is different from their voter registration. The classic case of this is a woman (or man) who got married and now goes by a different last name. What if the driver's license has one name and the voter registration the other? What if someone starts going by their middle name and registers that way? When changes are made in one database or the other, are they synched? Apparently not.

No one should assume there will be a "reasonableness" standard applied to name discrepancies on election day either. Your kindly poll worker may know you're Bob even though your driver's license says Dave, but if Pennsylvania is still a swing state in November, you can be sure both the Democratic and Republican Parties will have swarms of lawyers looking over the poll workers' shoulders. The standard applied on Election Day might be very literal and very picky.

2) While the "no id" list is squishy because no one knows how name mismatches will be handled, the "expired" list is probably a harder number. It may be telling that the Secretary of State's office, which is charged with defending Voter ID, has had very little to say about the "expired list," and media organizations have paid it less attention. "Expired" represents actual matches in the PennDOT database, but to licenses that expired before November 2011 and would be unusable to vote in November 2012 under Pennsylvania's law.

3) Even if you assume half the "no id" voters will be able to vote, that would still mean 953,000 Pennsylvanians (200,000 Philadelphians), have ID problems that will prevent them from voting if they can't get a new ID from PennDOT before November. Even if you assume that 25% of these folks have left the state and have no intention of voting here, it is still way more IDs than anybody ever dreamed would be needed. At last week's Voter ID trial, one of the most comical comments came from a PennDOT official who said his agency was all prepared to process the 10,000 new IDs that would need to be created. 10,000 might not cover one ward in South Philly.

4) In some ways the most important question isn't the overall magnitude of impact anyway. What's important is whether Voter ID unfairly penalizes certain segments of society and therefore deprives them of representation (For example, see the age breakdowns posted here).

If the state lawsuit against Voter ID is unsuccessful, the U.S. Justice Department is getting ready to challenge the law under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars states from erecting any law that disproportionately impacts minority voting, whether the law was intended to be discriminatory or not. We have just completed an analysis on this question, and based on what we've found, the Justice Department is going to have a case. If Pennsylvania's law can be shown to affect African American and Hispanic voters more than whites, it could be hard to defend.

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