Julián Aguilar’s recent piece on the state of voting rights in Texas as the Supreme Court begins its proceedings on the constitutionality of Section 5 included a comment from Lauren Bean, Greg Abbott’s deputy communications director:
“They know that the Attorney General’s Office has prosecuted voter fraud across Texas and it must be stopped. Those same critics also know that Latinos are repeatedly victimized by voter fraud and Texans of all races strongly support voter ID. They need to stop playing politics and start preventing illegal voting in Texas.”
Setting aside the prevalence, or lack thereof, of voter fraud taking place in Texas, what gave me pause was the statement that “all races strongly support voter ID.” While this was in fact true as recently as early 2011, there has been a recent sea change.
When examining opinions on voter ID laws, the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll asks respondents the following question:
Some people argue that requiring registered voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls reduces voter fraud and does not place major obstacles on anyone who is legally entitled to vote. Other people argue that such a requirement has a negligible effect on voter fraud but places significant obstacles on elderly, low-income, disabled, and minority voters. Do you agree or disagree with the idea that registered voters should be required to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls before they can be allowed to vote?
In February 2011, an overwhelming 63 percent of black respondents agreed that voters should be required to present a government-issued photo ID to vote (along with 80 percent of whites and 68 percent of Hispanics). When we asked the question again in our October 2012 survey, during the heart of the campaign season, those numbers had dropped precipitously among blacks, to 33 percent. Hispanics, on the other hand, remained supportive of voter ID, increasing their support slightly to 75 percent.
On one hand, the overall amount of support among Hispanics is probably somewhat overstated (and in reality, probably overstated for all three groups) due to response biases inherent in almost all polling (it’s difficult to capture low-income respondents, and especially low-income minorities who may not have photo identification). However, the results do comport with other statewide polls that have examined the issue (look into the cross-tabs if you’re interested).
Changes in public opinion of this magnitude are rare, but in this case, relatively easy to explain. Before voter ID became one of the big mobilizing forces of the 2012 campaign, opinion on the issue was rather homogenous. Voter ID provisions appeared sensible to majorities of almost all subgroups of voters at first glance (except for self-described liberals), and opponents of voter ID were thought to be protecting the benefits accrued from voter fraud. In a national survey in April 2012, Fox News found that 50 percent of respondents believed that “opponents of voter identification laws are really trying to steal elections by increasing illegal votes by non-citizens and other ineligible voters.”
While Texas Democrats did their best to portray the harms of a voter ID law to the electorate in the lead-up to its eventual passage by the Texas Legislature in 2011, Democrats at the national level didn’t do much to mobilize opposition to combat voter ID laws being passed in largely Republican-controlled states. Given the public opinion environment described above, this move on the part of national Democrats was not terribly surprising. The elite conversation on voter ID, at least nationally, was essentially a single stream of information proclaiming the sensibility of these laws with a comparatively cautious set of Democratic detractors disinterested in appearing as though they were trying to steal elections.
During the 2012 campaign, however, the elite conversation shifted as Democrats became increasingly worried about the potential negative consequences under different voter ID regimes, as well as a broader set of changes nationwide advertised as efforts to reform the electoral system, but widely characterized by Democrats as voter suppression. As elite opinion polarized on the issue, it’s not surprising that the most Democratic group of all, blacks, polarized with that opinion. What transpired above is a great example of how large, though rare, shifts in public opinion can occur.