Study: Confusion Over Wisconsin Voter ID Laws May Have Deterred Over 20,000 Eligible Voters

Image via Getty.
Image via Getty.

A new study has found that voter ID laws in Wisconsin are having a negative effect on voter turn-out and may have discouraged as many as 23,542 people from the state’s two largest counties to vote in the 2016 presidential election.


Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison sought to understand the impact, if any, of the state’s voter ID law—the strictest in the nation—has had on voting habits. Enacted in 2011 by Republicans, the Wisconsin law requires citizens to provide specific forms of photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a passport, in order to cast a vote. The requirement, which critics argue targets minorities and low-income people, is still being litigated and did not take effect in the 2012 general election. In 2016, a federal court partially opened up the law by permitting citizens without photo IDs the ability to vote via affadavit. The 2016 general election was the first presidential election since the requirement went into effect.

The survey findings, based on 288 registered voters who abstained from voting in the November 2016 election, showed that there was “considerable confusion about the law,” according to a press release announcing the study. “Most of the people who said they did not vote because they lacked ID actually possessed a qualifying form of ID,” the release stated.

Based on the responses, anywhere between 16,801 people to 23,252 eligible registered voters didn’t make it to the polls because they were confused by Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Another 9,001 to 14,101 people didn’t vote because they said they lacked proper identification. 80 percent of those deterred, and 77 percent of those prevented due to lack of ID, cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election. According to the study, “[i]f the deterred and prevented registrants had voted at their 2012 turnout rates, voter ID could have lowered turnout in 2016 by 1.8 and 0.9 percentage points, respectively.”

The study also found a disproportionate impact on black and low-income voters. About 8.5 percent of white respondents listed ID as a reason for not voting, compared to 27.5 percent of black respondents. And 21.2 percent of those with incomes below $25,000 were “deterred from voting, compared to 7.2 percent of those with incomes at or above $25,000,” the study found.

“The data show that poor and minority populations are affected the most,” said lead researcher Kenneth R. Mayer, Professor of Political Science UW Madison, in a press release announcing the findings.

The main conclusion of the study is that thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of otherwise eligible people were deterred from voting by the ID law,” he continued. “An eligible voter who cannot vote because of the ID law is disenfranchised, and that in itself is a serious harm to the integrity to the electoral process.”


Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin by 22,748 votes in the 2016 general election—a margin of one percent—in a state that leans Democratic. Though it’s hard to estimate what effect voter suppression had on her loss, in May she claimed that an estimated “200,000 people in Wisconsin were either denied or chilled in their efforts to vote,” a statement that Politifact has rated “mostly false.” Mayer’s study doesn’t say how voter suppression may have impacted Clinton, but it does add to criticisms of voter ID laws that argue they use the boogeyman of voter fraud as a way to suppress minority votes.

Prachi Gupta is a senior reporter at Jezebel.


The Ghost of James Madison's Rage Boner

This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

I might actually support voter ID laws if they were accompanied by changes in funding and administration such that anyone who wanted to vote could get an ID easily. But oddly enough, these laws are often accompanied by the exact opposite, such as closing DMV offices in poor neighborhoods.