Last June the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, resulting in several states, among them Texas and North Carolina, racing to enact draconian new voter ID laws. While the first wave of attention focused on the ways such laws disproportionately impact minority voters, young voters, and the elderly, a slew of articles this past weekend point out that voter ID laws may also significantly suppress women’s votes. Indeed some have even suggested that this is the next front in the war on women, and suppressing female votes is part of the GOP’s concerted effort to ensure victories in states like Texas, where women like Wendy Davis threaten to topple the GOP with the support of female voters. It’s beyond disputing that women have ensured that Democrats, up to and including President Obama, have achieved major wins in recent elections. Female voters decided 22 of 23 Senate races in the 2012 election.
But a closer look at whether voter ID laws will invariably harm liberal women and Democratic candidates at the polls suggests that something more interesting, and more complicated, may be going on here. We don’t actually have very good data to support the claim that voter ID laws will disproportionately disenfranchise progressive women. In fact some election law experts tell me the opposite may be true: These laws may hurt conservative women instead.
The problem around women and voter ID is neither new nor complicated: Women often change their names when they marry and divorce. Men don’t. Because some of the new voter ID bills frequently demand that a voter’s name correspond to her most up-to-date, legally recognized name at the polls, they erect a barrier for women who haven’t kept their ID current to reflect changing marital status. And since, at least according to one source, American women change their names about 90 percent of the time when they marry or divorce, they are at significantly higher risk of being unable to provide an ID that matches their current legal name.
As the many articles considering the problem suggest, in some states that is about to get even worse. As ThinkProgress reported last week, the new Texas voter ID law demands that “constituents show original documents verifying legal proof of a name change, whether it is a marriage license, divorce decree, or court ordered change.” Photocopies will not be accepted. If you don’t have those original documents, you must pay a minimum of $20 for new copies. So in some states, female voters face two hurdles—showing they are who they claim to be and producing original documents indicating that they really are married and divorced.
Interestingly, almost everyone arguing that progressive women will be disproportionately harmed by these laws cites a single study done in 2006 by the Brennan Center for Justice. According to that study, only “48% of voting-age women with ready access to their U.S. birth certificates have a birth certificate with current legal name—and only 66% of voting-age women with ready access to any proof of citizenship have a document with current legal name.” The survey concluded that “using 2000 census citizen voting-age population data, this means that as many as 32 million voting-age women may have available only proof of citizenship documents that do not reflect their current name.” (Emphasis theirs.)
But the Brennan study looked only at proof of citizenship documents, not photo IDs, so it may not in fact prove the argument being advanced here. The Brennan study made no findings with respect to a gender differential on current photo IDs. I asked around, but I was unable to find many good studies that showed whether women would be disproportionately disenfranchised by Texas-style voter ID laws. That doesn’t mean that photo ID laws won’t disproportionately affect women. But it does mean the Brennan study doesn’t quite prove it.
Moreover, when I spoke to several election law experts about the problem, more than one of them confirmed my suspicion that women who change their names may tend to skew more conservative than women who don’t. Or as Sam Issacharoff, a professor at NYU law school, explained it to me, “During the 2012 presidential election, I thought the Pennsylvania [voter ID] law was unlikely to have any partisan effect because the way the ID law was drafted there was likely to have an impact on more Republican than Democratic voters, in part for the reasons you identify. Women in particular who are married and change their name I thought were likely not Democratic voters.”
Something else to consider: If the slew of new voter ID laws may hit divorced women hardest, consider that women in red states in fact have much higher divorce and remarriage rates. And women in the South have especially high remarriage rates. So it’s not at all clear that liberal women will be disenfranchised in greater numbers than their conservative counterparts. I’m told that women generally get hassled more at the polls because they rarely resemble the image on their photo ID in the first place.
The truth is that if Republicans want to scuttle Wendy Davis’ electoral chances, there are demonstrably easier ways of getting the job done. After all, the same Texas Legislature that passed the restrictive voter ID law was found by a federal court to have intentionally tried to pass a redistricting plan that would have redistricted Wendy Davis out of business. And, overall, there is good data to suggest that voter ID laws will clearly disenfranchise Hispanic and African American voters, poor voters, students, and other groups that skew Democratic. But the issue of women and voter ID is less clear-cut.
Ultimately, the data is still fairly bad on both sides of the voter ID debate, although it’s pretty much delusional on the vote fraud side. NYU’s Issacharoff sums it up this way: “Republicans think as a matter of deep faith that there is a lot of in-person, election day voter fraud. Many Democrats believe that the ID laws and the like have resulted in a lot of voter suppression. But there is precious little empirical evidence of either. The in-person vote fraud stuff is nonsense. But the ID laws seem to target populations that are isolated from mainstream society and do not participate. Mean, offensive, hopefully unconstitutional, and all that. Just not all that effective, best I can tell.”
All this ambiguity in the data is why Judge Richard Posner stirred up such a hornet’s nest last week when he admitted to HuffPost Live’s Mike Sacks that he made a mistake when he wrote the decision in 2007 upholding Indiana’s voter ID law. He now believes the dissenters in the voter ID case had it right. But beyond questions about whether judges should recant their own decisions in the media, Posner’s mea culpa forces all of us to contend with our assumptions about the motivations behind voter ID laws and the proof we have to support them. And when it comes to female voters, it may be that what looks like everyday Republican voter ID deviousness, will prove to be the sound of them shooting themselves in the foot.