On Sunday's commentary (video below), John Oliver summarized the problems with requiring voter identification: the difficulty in many states of obtaining I.D.; the disproportionate impact on black and hispanic voters; inapplicability of the remedy to anything but voter impersonation, which a study found occurred at most 31 times of more than a billion votes cast from 2000 through 2014; the evidence that it may be used as a partisan effort to elect more Republicans.
There may be only one pitfall in requiring voter identification which went unmentioned, and that possibly only because of time limitations. The day before the last off-year congressional election, Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones posted an article detailing what she considers the most "subtle" means of disenfranchising black and hispanic voters: "polling places without enough voting machines or poll workers." She found
Nationally, African Americans waited about twice as long to vote in the 2012 election as white people (23 minutes on average versus 12 minutes); Hispanics waited 19 minutes. White people who live in neighborhoods whose residents are less than 5 percent minority had the shortest of all wait times, just 7 minutes. These averages obscure some of the unusually long lines in some areas. In South Carolina's Richland County, which is 48 percent black and is home to 14 percent of the state's African American registered voters, some people waited more than five hours to cast their ballots.
A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that a big factor behind these delays was inadequately prepared polling places in heavily minority precincts. Looking at Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina, three states that had some of the longest voting lines in 2012 , the center found a strong correlation between areas with large minority populations and a lack of voting machines and poll workers. In South Carolina, the 10 precincts with the longest waits had more than twice the percentage of black voters (64 percent) as the state as a whole (27 percent).
When individuals have to wait to vote, they are tempted to turn around and go home, especially because in the vast majority of elections the likelihood of one vote (or even a few votes) deciding an election is virtually nill. One study, Mencimer found, " suggested that roughly 130,000 would-be voters were turned away thanks to long lines" in Franklin County (home to Columbus), Ohio, in 2004. (Mencimer adds "Those missing votes would not have been enough to swing the state for John Kerry." Wrong. This way, too.)
Long waiting lines, most prevalent in urban and minority areas, discourage turnout, primarily of Democratic voters. Given the most common reasons for those lines, racial discrimination is not the primary motivation, though there is an obvious discriminatory impact. Mencimer notes
Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied voting wait times, has posited that the problem is likely related to the poor provision of public service in minority areas in general. In other words, if you don't have good trash pick up, your polling station isn't likely to function very well, either.
Blacks and hispanics are those most likely to live in areas plagued by inadequate municipal services. They also are disproportionately unlikely to possess voter I.D., hence especially likely to be harmed by the requirement that identification be presented at the polls. Additionally, the mere presentation of identification, along with verification (albeit a relatively brief process in most cases), lengthens the time required for voting. Lines inevitably are longer and some discouraged voters will return home without casting a ballot.
The impact on minority voters severely hampers Democratic fortunes. It should be a bigger issue in the presidential race, and would be if only there were a Democrat countering her opponent's campaign with a race-based appeal.