Right-Wing Media Continue To Fail “Statistics 101” With Voter ID Misinformation

Right-wing media repeatedly argue that increased turnout of voters of color demonstrates that strict voter ID requirements do not cause voter suppression, a relationship that experts note is a basic confusion of correlation with causation.

Right-Wing Media Use Rising Turnout As Proof That Voter ID Is Not Voter Suppression

The Wall Street Journal: Turnout Trends “Refute The Claim By [Hillary] Clinton That Racial Obstacles To Voting Are Increasing.” The editorial board of the WSJ attacked a recent speech by Clinton on modern voter suppression and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder by arguing increased voter-of-color turnout shows there is no “evidence that voter ID laws keep minorities from voting”:

Such a large increase in black voter turnout over 16 years would seem to refute the claim by Mrs. Clinton that racial obstacles to voting are increasing.

Mrs. Clinton ignores all of this and focuses instead on anecdotes, while raising alarm about the voter ID laws that have passed in the last decade. She specifically raises fears about North and South Carolina. Yet the same Census Bureau study shows that black turnout exceeded non-Hispanic white turnout by statistically significant rates in both Carolinas, and was higher in most states east of the Mississippi River outside of New England.


By the way, Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee have some of the strictest voter ID laws of the more than 30 states that have such laws, yet the Census report says black turnout exceeded that of non-Hispanic whites in 2012 in all three. Where is the evidence that voter ID laws keep minorities from voting?

The disconnect between these facts and Mrs. Clinton's assertions suggests that she is the one playing racial politics. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/18/13]

National Review Online's Rich Lowry: Clinton's Speech On The Voter Suppression Of Voter ID Was “Ludicrous.” In Politico, Lowry quoted discredited right-wing activist Hans von Spakovsky to argue “voter ID laws don't suppress the votes of anyone”:

Madam Secretary hasn't missed a beat. She knows that the calling card of Democrats in the Barack Obama era is a polarizing politics that seeks to fire up minority voters by stirring fears of fire hoses and police dogs. Its basic vocabulary is imputations of racism; its evidentiary standard is low and dishonest; and its ethic is whatever works -- so long as its stirs fear, anger, and resentment.


The evidence suggests that voter ID laws don't suppress the votes of anyone. Hans A. von Spakovsky, a voting expert at The Heritage Foundation, points out that major, dispassionate studies show no effect on turnout.


Groups opposed to Georgia's voter ID law, passed in 2005, sued and struck out at federal district court. As von Spakovsky writes, “the court pointed out that after two years of litigation, none of the plaintiff organizations like the NAACP had been able to produce a single individual or member who did not have a photo ID or could not easily obtain one.” [Politico, 8/15/13]

The Washington Times: Fixing The Voting Rights Act After Shelby County Is A “Legislative Scam.” The editorial board of the Times accused Attorney General Eric Holder of being the real “obstacle to civil rights” because he and President Barack Obama want to “keep their veto” over voter ID:

[Shelby County] held that these states and localities should no longer be singled out for extraordinary treatment based on unfair voting practices from a half-century ago. These Southern jurisdictions, which once had low minority-voter turnout, now often exceed those of counterparts in the Northern states.

President Obama's campaign arm, Organizing for America, set the tone for the latest push with a fundraising email bemoaning the fact that “within days of the Supreme Court's ruling, six states submitted voter-suppression laws that could make it harder for millions of Americans to vote.” The requirement for legal voters to show IDs at the polls, much like minor voters having to show an ID to buy a six-pack of Budweiser, constitutes “voter-suppression laws” in the eyes of a guilt-ridden liberal.


When the voting law comes up for consideration, Republicans shouldn't be bullied into restoring provisions that would block voter-ID statutes enacted by the states. Much to the chagrin of congressmen looking for cheap and easy votes, Jim Crow lies in a graveyard in Alabama, and he isn't coming back. There's not a single Southern governor left standing in a schoolhouse door. The obstacle to civil rights is Mr. Holder, who wants to keep the backdoor of the polling station unlocked to make it easier to dilute the integrity of the ballot. [The Washington Times, 7/23/13]

Breitbart.com: African-American Turnout In The 2012 Presidential Election “Put To Rest The Lie” That Voter ID Can Suppress The Vote. Breitbart.com seized upon an Associated Press analysis that African-American voter turnout “outperformed” their eligible voter share in 2008 and 2012 to claim voter ID laws do not “disenfranchise minority voters”:

Black voters “outperformed” their potential share of the electorate in 2012, while every other minority group and whites “underperformed.” According to an analysis by the Associated Press, if the racial and ethnic composition of the electorate were the same it was before Barack Obama entered the national stage, Mitt Romney would be President.

This ought to forever put to rest the lie that voter id laws disenfranchise minority voters.

Blacks make up about 12% of the total pool of eligible voters, yet they comprised 13% of the overall electorate in 2012. This is a very high turnout, fueled, no doubt, by Barack Obama being on the ballot. The share of the electorate made up of White, Asian or Hispanic voters were all well below their share of the population. According to the AP, for example, 2-5 million fewer whiles voted compared to 2008, even though their number of eligible voters had increased. [Breitbart.com, 4/28/13]

But Conclusions On Causation Cannot Be Drawn From A Correlation Between High Turnout And States With Voter ID

Former Principal Quantitative Analyst For The Brennan Center: Arguments That Increased Turnout Demonstrates Voter ID Is Not Voter Suppression Are “At Best Unscientific, At Worst Just Plain Wrong.” Sundeep Iyer, formerly of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, pointed out that voter ID supporters who claim turnout rates in states with stringent voter ID laws show an absence of voter suppression need “a simple statistics lesson”:

Any good student of Statistics 101 will tell you that correlation does not imply causation. Apparently, many voter ID supporters never got the memo.

Two and a half years ago, Justin Levitt wrote on this blog about how some proponents of voter ID requirements were asserting that stringent ID laws in Georgia and Indiana did not depress turnout in 2008. Those proponents thought they had found their magic bullet: turnout in Georgia and Indiana was higher in 2008 than in 2004, despite the implementation of strict ID laws in the interim.

Mr. Levitt gave them a simple statistics lesson. Even if turnout increases at the same time as the adoption of a new voter ID law, there may be something other than the voter ID law - Mr. Levitt identified campaign mobilization, in particular - that caused the turnout increase. In other words, correlation does not imply causation.

Bad statistical practices - like old habits - die hard. Supporters of voter ID requirements are at it again, this time misinterpreting a new set of election results in Georgia. In response to E.J. Dionne's Washington Post column on vote suppression efforts across the United States, Georgia's Secretary of State wrote to the Post's editors about how an increase in black turnout between 2006 and 2010 showed that voter ID laws do not suppress turnout. Hans von Spakovsky repeated the assertion on NPR and in USA Today, and Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder picked up the same message in defending Ohio's proposed voter ID requirement. Citing the Georgia statistics in a see-this-couldn't-be-that-bad sort of way has become a central talking point among proponents of voter ID laws.

Once again, these proponents have mistaken simple correlation for causation. You don't need to be a statistician to know that without controlling for other factors that might influence turnout, the assertion that Georgia's voter ID requirement didn't depress turnout is meaningless -- at best unscientific, at worst just plain wrong. [Brennan Center For Justice, 7/6/11]

Colorlines And The Nation's Brentin Mock: Failing to Control For Other Factors In Georgia Voter Turnout Leads To “Specious Conclusions...At Best” In Implying Voter ID Does Not Suppress The Vote. Mock, national voting rights reporter, pointed out in Colorlines that the increase in Georgia voter-of-color turnout after a strict voter ID law was enacted does not prove “voter ID laws [are] fair for all and devoid of any suppression effect”:

Georgia has a unique situation in terms of its voter ID law, which was put into effect in 2007. As is often cited by photo voter ID law proponents, voter turnout did in fact increase between the 2004 presidential elections, which did not feature a photo voter ID mandate, and the 2008 presidential elections, which did. The numbers on this cannot be refuted, and Heritage Foundation's Hans Von Spakovsky often excitedly refers to the Georgia case when making his pro-voter ID arguments and did so in a recent blog.


These are specious conclusions to draw at best because it relies on a non-existent causation or correlation between the implementation of the state's voter ID law and voter turnout without controlling for other factors such as the growth in voting age population and the growth in the number of people registered to vote during the same period.

I spoke with Charles S. Bullock III, the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia who said that the state's voter ID law “is not a cause” for the increase in minority voter turnout and “that you can't build a case for a causal link” between the implementation of the voter ID law and the increase in minority voter turnout. In fact, voter turnout would have increased in Georgia in the 2008 presidential election with or without the voter ID law for a number of other factors, says Lubbock, including a “gradual increase” in the voting-age population of African Americans, and also the excitement around the possible election of the nation's first black president. But this does not mean that everyone was able to “easily” get an ID card.


The Increase in Georgia's minority voter turnout was due to large increases in voter registration and the excitement around the Obama campaign, despite the voter ID law, but not because of it. [Colorlines, 3/23/12]

PolitiFact: Suggesting That Voter ID Caused Increased Georgia Voter-Of-Color Turnout “Is A Logical Fallacy.” In pushing a strict voter ID bill in Ohio, state Republicans claimed that not only did the Georgia voter ID law not “dissuade[] black voters from participating,” it was “helpful,” a claim debunked by PolitiFact Ohio:

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Mecklenborg of Cincinnati, pointed to totals in Georgia that showed an increase in voting among all racial groups following adoption of a voter ID law.

“The African-American vote in Georgia has increased dramatically -- five times the amount of the white vote,” he said.

“Had there been a contrary result, we might have taken a different position on the bill,” House Speaker William G. Batchelder said March 23 at a news conference. “Had this dissuaded black voters from participating, we might have taken a totally different look at it. It hasn't, it doesn't, and apparently, if you do cause and effect in that state, it's been helpful.”


Was the photo ID requirement the cause of the increase, as Batchelder suggested?

Batchelder's office didn't get back to us. We put the question to William Minozzi, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University, who examined the effects of voter ID in a study published last fall.

“Correlation does not imply causation,” he said. Georgia's increased voter participation is “the result of a lot of different things. I think you could call this cherry-picking.”

“It's an obviously specious argument,” said law professor Daniel Tokaji, associate director of Ohio State University's Election Law @ Moritz project, who testified against the photo-ID bill. “A lot of things affect turnout. The last two election cycles are ones in which the Democratic base has been extraordinarily motivated.” [PolitiFact Ohio, 4/4/11]

Talking Points Memo: Von Spakovsky Accused Of Leaving Out “A Crucial Piece Of Data That Undermine[s] His Argument That Voter ID Laws Don't Suppress Minority Turnout.” As reported by Ryan Reilly, in Congressional testimony von Spakovsky used the much-repeated right-wing media argument that the high Georgia turnout of voters of color “was proof that [voter ID] didn't suppress turnout,” and was immediately  challenged by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and election law professor Justin Levitt for his “flawed” logic:

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) squared off with voting rights restrictions enthusiast Hans von Spakovsky at Senate hearing on Thursday, accusing the Heritage Foundation fellow of leaving out a crucial piece of data that undermined his argument that voter ID laws don't suppress minority turnout.

In his written testimony, von Spakovsky said that the fact that Georgia had the highest voter turnout in its history in 2008 when there was a photo ID law on the books was proof that the measure didn't suppress turnout. He compared Georgia's statistics to neighboring Mississippi, a state which also has a significant African-American population.

“For example, Mississippi, a state with a large African-American population just like Georgia, there was only a third of what it was in Georgia,” von Spakovsky said during his testimony.

“Can I ask you something?” Franken interjected. “Do you know how much Mississippi grew in terms of black population during those years versus Georgia?”

“I don't,” said von Spakovsky.

“Wouldn't that have to factor into the significance of that?” Franken said. “Here's my question: you did a study and you put in your testimony that it was 'significant' that the percentage of black voters grew more in Georgia than Mississippi and you just cited it again. I would think that, as someone who writes studies, it would be significant to know that the black population grew at more than four times the rate than the black population in Mississippi, and I'm wondering how you didn't factor that in,” he said. (Franken later corrected himself to say that the black population in Georgia grew at more than three times the rate.)

Franken said that von Spakovsky left out a crucial piece of data.


Franken wasn't the only one taking shots an von Spakovsky. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who previously authored a report for the Brennan Center which found no evidence of a national problem of voter impersonation fraud, said von Spakovsky's logic was flawed.

“There's a basic -- and I mean basic -- misconception here,” Levitt said. “It's called the correlation-causation fallacy, and anybody who's had statistics for a week can talk to you about it.”

“Mr. von Spakovsky and I agree on one thing, that the turnout studies don't show great impact, but that's because they can't,” Levitt said. “You can't draw any real conclusions about that.”

“I'll give you an example. Mr. von Spakovsky supports voter ID restrictions. I oppose them. Mr. von Spakovsky has no facial hair. I have facial hair. But certainly opposition to voter ID doesn't cause facial hair,” he said. [Talking Points Memo, 9/8/11]