Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dark figures under bright lights

Voter identification laws, they're all the rage now. On the Left, they're likened to poll taxes, tools to suppress the minority vote, to disenfranchise millions of Americans:
The new voter ID laws are, of course, not exactly the same as the old poll taxes. History provides few examples of exact replicas. But the new laws and the historic poll tax do share three significant points: 
First, a voter restriction is like a poll tax when its authors use voting fraud as a pretext for legislation that has little to do with voting fraud. 
Second, it is like a poll tax when it creates only a small nuisance to some voters, but for other groups it erects serious barriers to the ballot. 
Third, it is like a poll tax when it has crude partisan advantage as its most immediate aim.
Harsh stuff, especially considering the first point, since voter fraud is the absolute most-cited reason by people on the Right, when it comes to justifying voter ID laws. The current battleground for this issue is the State of Pennsylvania, whose recently-enacted voter ID laws were recently challenged in court. The trial has now ended and the two sides--and the nation--are awaiting the decision. Here's a decidedly left-wing analysis of "what we learned" from the trial. Much of what was learned concerns numbers, statistics about the impact of voter ID laws and about the prevalence--or lack thereof--of voter fraud.

With regard to the first--the impact of voter ID laws on voter turnout--much of the discussion is centered on a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. In the Pennsylvania trial, this was the principle evidence for those opposed to the law. Indeed, it is the principal piece of evidence being cited by the Left, as a whole. But the issue is just not that cut and dried. Here is another study from the Brennan Center, from back in 2009, that concludes the following (my boldface):
In this article, we argue that voter-ID laws should have little to no effect on aggregate or individual-level turnout, particularly after considering political motivations for voting. This is not to claim that voter-ID laws will not have an impact on future voting nor are we arguing no one is impacted by voter-ID laws, rather we suggest that these laws have not had a significant impact on voting thus far. Moreover, given the get-outthe-vote initiatives and grassroots programs designed to increase civic engagement and inform voters, we expect that members of the electorate who are interested in voting are more likely to do so regardless of the state laws requiring various forms of identification.  
While there are many examples of anecdotal evidence in the debate over disenfranchisement and voter-identification laws, like the one with which we open this article, we chose to put the question of the impact of voter-ID laws to an empirical test. Using multiple data sources, we explored whether strict voter-identification laws affect voter turnout at both the aggregate (state) and individual level. We find that voter identification laws do not affect voter turnout, and as a result we fail to reject the null hypothesis of no effects.
This, of course, flies in the face of the current claims about voter ID laws, how they will lead to the disenfranchisement of millions of voters, how they are like poll taxes, how they represent a return to the Jim Crow era, etc. For my part, I think there is simply insufficient evidence to draw an overall conclusion, one way or the other. And this is not 1912, regardless.

With regard to the second--the existence of voter fraud--there are many people claiming it is negligible, if not wholly non-existent, when it comes to the kind of fraud voter ID laws would actually prevent. And indeed, there is no study  I am aware of demonstrating significant amounts of such voter fraud. Given all of the hoopla surrounding the issue, one would think that if there was evidence to support the idea, we would have seen it by now. Right?

Well actually, no. Voter fraud is--by definition--a crime, an illegal activity. It's not something that exists--as a statistic--in the full light of day. Consider speeding. That's also a crime. How many instances of speeding occur every year? If we were to collect all of the speeding tickets issued by every locality in the nation, would that give us the answer? No, of course not. Because we all know that most acts of speeding are never ticketed, go completely unnoticed and unreported.

To actually know--with any degree of certainty--the number of instances of speeding that occurred would require information that cannot be accessed because it has never been compiled and no mechanism exists to compile it. Really, the only way to even estimate the number would be to ask every person how many times they had sped, then assume they both a) new the actual answer and, more importantly, b) were honest about it.

The Dark Figure in crime refers to this reality: crime statistics can only reflect discovered and/or reported crime, never undiscovered or unreported crime. And in this regard, the significance of a given crime statistic is also a product of the effort level in enforcing applicable laws and uncovering instances of that crime occuring.

Another very common crime is tax fraud. People don't always declare all of their income (like when some of it is in the form of cash/tips) and people routinely over-estimate--if not wholly manufacture--gifts to charity. And by and large, there is little or no effort on the part of the IRS to pursue the vast majority of such cases because it would cost far more to do so--or the fraud could never be proven--than could possibly be recouped in tax dollars.

So what about voter fraud? Do we actually have any idea, whatsoever, how much there is, how much there could be, how much there will be? No, we don't. And why? Because there is no mechanism in place to track it or even identify it. Absent a requirement to prove one's identity, how would it be possible to know if fraud was taking place? Think on that for a moment.

The IRS actually does have a mechanism to identify some fraud: receipts. We all know we are supposed to keep certain receipts to justify certain deductions. And if everyone were actually forced to produce these receipts, we would actually have real numbers, with regard to a specific kind of tax fraud. But imagine if there was no requirement to keep receipts. The number of demonstrable case of such tax fraud would drop to almost zero. Maybe even zero.But it would still exist, would still be taking place.

Such is the case for voter fraud. There's no actual way to know when its occurring. Maybe it never happens. Maybe it happens all of the time. The point is, we have no idea one way or the other. No matter how much effort is put into studying numbers from the past in this regard, no definitive answer will be forthcoming. Most crime statistics have three facets: the reported number, the dark figure, and the actual number. Voter fraud--with respect to ID laws--has only one facet to speak of; it is wholly dark because there is no way to track it, no way to identify it.

In this modern world of ours, it's a tough thing for many to come to grips with, the knowledge that they have no idea about the numbers for what is admittedly a simple kind of crime. To admit a lack of knowledge, however, is sometimes a good thing.

Cheers, all.


  1. Victimless crimes are always problematic to assess. There isn't anybody to complain.

    Anyway, what surprises me about all this debate is a position some Dems take that basically says, we won't do anything. I am not clear how they claim that voter suppression is such a major problem with IDs when most of the states around the world require some sort of identification for voting. I mean, you think the proposals go to far, too restrictive -- fine. Propose some way to alleviate that. But the position is "we don't need it, and anybody who says otherwise is trying to disenfranchise voters."

  2. They're locked onto one-size-fits-all stereotypes, Dm. Have been for a while now. This is just another facet of the "you're a racist is you criticize Obama" game.

  3. Yes, I know. Same thing with universal health care system. I am not ideologically opposed to this type of system, but I also can see the problems with implementation, downsides, price controls issues etc. I mean, take Clintl's statement on AW about how the way to save Medicare is to put everyone in the system. Really? I mean, you already pay Medicare tax, aren't you? You pay all your adult life and it is not enough to cover only a portion of your life, so how is it supposed to work? Sure, if you manage to significantly bring down the cost somehow, you could add people to the system, but as it is right now, it'd be like putting a foot on accelerator.

    Anyway, back to the topic. What I find amusing is the fact that people on the left usually like looking at what happens in other countries. They do it on every issue, whether it is warranted or not, but somehow on this issue they don't want to. Everybody has some sort of ID law (well, I am not sure it is everybody, but most of them), but hey, it would be a major problem in US. Why? Don't know. And some of them would actually support federal ID, but if individual states want to do it instead of the Feds -- again no. Why? Don't know. The record is stuck :-)