I can’t say I know much about race relations in Boston. But I know a little about election administration. Enough to know that the draft paper by Profs. Rachael Cobb, James Greiner, and Kevin Quinn, is long on conjecture and short on facts. Perhaps election judges in Boston are a bunch of racists. One thing for certain, we’ll never know from this research paper.
The researchers determined that voter ID laws were not administered in a race neutral manner in the November 2008 Presidential election in Boston. Unfortunately, their research fails in a fundamental area. Additionally, this research falls into the all-too-common category of projects that miss an opportunity to base their findings on facts rather than statistical analysis.
First, these researchers leads you to believe, and the synopsis from Pew in their electionline report two weeks ago directly states as much, that the only reason a person in Massachusetts needs to show ID is if they are a first time voter under the Help America Vote Act who failed to provide ID at the time of registration. That’s just not true. A couple questions to election administrators in Massachusetts and a review of the Secretary of State’s website could have told these researchers as much.
Here is the link to the 2008 election guide sent out by the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office. On page 5, in the Massachusetts’ Voters’ Bill of Rights under item 8.
You have the right to vote but must show identification if: you are a first-time voter who registered to vote by mail and did not submit identification with the voter registration form; or your name is on the inactive voter list; or your vote is being challenged; or if requested by a poll worker.
And again on page 3 of the same guide.
To cast a provisional ballot, you must execute a provisional ballot affirmation before a precinct officer at the polling place declaring that you are a registered voter in the city or town and reside within the geographical boundaries of said precinct. You must also show suitable identification.
Here in Champaign County, we also have comparable regulations for ID. One example of people who end up having to show ID on election day are those whose signature doesn’t match the voter registration record. The most common reason for that is a person’s signature changing. In the November 2008 election we literally had hundreds of people showing up to vote who hadn’t voted in over a decade. Some had been registered back in the 70s but still had never cast a ballot. It is hardly surprising that those people’s signatures had changed and that they were subsequently asked to show identification. I would not be surprised to find that the same thing happened in Boston. A number of other things can happen to cause a signature to not show up properly on the voter’s poll record requiring the judge to ask for identification.
But as glaring as the faulty legal foundations of this research is the methodology. If you read the research, you’ll see a lot of fancy statistical analysis that purportedly makes the case for this trio. But one wonders why it was necessary to do much in statistical analysis at all. These researchers could very simply have shown up at the polling place and asked to observe. This is from the Secretary of State’s Election Day Legal Summary.
To achieve the legal requirement that the election be held in public view, observers shall be allowed inside the polling place, outside the guardrail, unless they are disorderly or obstruct the access of voters. Observers may keep notes including marked voting lists. If there are so many observers in the polling place that they obstruct voters, they may be asked to cooperate in collecting information. The warden may exclude from the polling place any person who is disorderly or who obstructs the access of voters.
This research surveys every 16th voter regarding whether they were asked for ID, presumes that the respondent is answering accurately, and then further presumes that they were either asked properly under HAVA or they were asked improperly.
By placing observers in the polling place, these researchers could have gotten far more accurate information that would have obviated surveys and statistical sampling entirely. Each and every voter in a number of polling places could have been observed to determine their apparent race, whether they were asked for ID, and the reason they were asked. Actual observation could have avoided all the accuracy problems associated with surveys.
I’ve got my doubts about the value of voter ID laws. But those doubts have nothing to do with the ability of election judges to administer them fairly. This research is faulty and its conclusions unsupported. If opponents of voter ID laws are truly concerned about this issue, they should go back into the field in November 2010 with actual observation of the election process that does justice to the question. Further, charges of racism against election officials should not be launched with such sketchy evidence.
The only thing this paper accomplishes is further diminishing the confidence of voters in the election process. That’s very unfortunate, and unfortunately predictable in these days of agenda driven research.