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The Mystical GOP Faith in Voter Suppression

I don’t usually take stances on people’s motives. I’m not a psychic and the evidence to back-up my suspicions is usually pretty poor. But in Pennsylvania, there’s not much question that the GOP’s newfound enthusiasm for stricter voting identification laws stems from the hope that they’ll deflate Democratic turnout. First, Pennsylvania’s Republican House Majority Leader said that voter ID would allow Romney to win Pennsylvania. Now, Robert Gleason, head of the Pennsylvania Republican Party says that voter ID helped reduce Obama’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania. Obviously, Gleason’s comment is politically stupid, but it’s also just wrong.

Surely Gleason knows that a Pennsylvania judge delayed implementation of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law last October, so voters didn’t need identification to cast ballots in last November’s presidential election. Perhaps he means that confusion over the law hurt Democrats? That doesn’t seem likely, either. Most argue that voter ID should have a disparate impact on non-white voters, the elderly and the young, and those who rely on public transportation. So we’d expect the consequences of voter ID to be especially evident in Philadelphia, with a huge black population, plenty of colleges, and a low rate of car ownership. But Obama did exceptionally well in Philadelphia. In fact, Obama did even better in Philadelphia than he did in 2008: he won by 492,000 votes in 2012, up from Obama’s 478,000 vote margin in 2008. And while there was a slight drop-off in Democratic turnout (7,000 votes, or a 1.2 percent decline), the drop-off among Republican votes was far, far greater (a 21,000 vote, 18 percent decline).

Obama did lose ground in Pennsylvania. His margin of victory shrunk by 4.9 points, modestly more than Obama’s national drop-off of 3.4 points. But there are good explanations for Obama's relative weakness in the Keystone State. Western Pennsylvania is full of traditionally Democratic voters in coal country who abandoned Obama en masse, wherever they resided. The Romney campaign and its Super PAC allies invested far more resources in the state over the final couple months of the campaign, including a few last minute stops by Romney. These are much better explanations for Obama’s weak showing than confusion over voter ID laws, especially since Obama did better in Philadelphia than he did in 2008.

Stupid comments by Pennsylvania Republicans on voter ID are nothing new. It seems there's some sort of pathological assumption that voter ID laws are a magic wand for electing Republicans in the Keystone State. In fact, they're so effective at helping Republicans that, apparently, they don't even need to be implemented. Their apparent enthusiasm for devulging the voter ID intentions is a little bizarre, since Republicans have big political incentives to shut up. It would make more sense if liberals were the one's arguing that the GOP was going to steal presidential elections. Instead, Pennsylvania Republicans appear so enthusiastic about their prospect of stealing an election, that they can't suppress their excitement. 

But there isn’t very much evidence that voter ID costs Democrats a large number of voters. Even the best studies are pretty weak, and we can point to states like Georgia and Indiana, where voterID laws were enacted and Obama made unusually large gains. That doesn’t mean that voter-ID doesn’t help Republicans at all. Nor does it justify disenfranchising voters, no matter how few. And it’s possible that stricter laws, like the one under consideration in Texas, will have a larger impact. But to date, the consequences of voter-ID are nearly imperceptible. It’s just wrong to argue that voter ID would flip a lean-Democratic state like Pennsylvania, let alone move the needle when it hasn’t even been implemented. That’s just crazy.