How to Get Out the Vote in a Voter ID World

Voter ID laws create an unnecessary barrier to voting that disproportionately affects poor and nonwhite voters. If you’re going to have them, you should at least tell people that they're going into effect. But given the impetus of these laws—to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters—it's no surprise that few of the states that have passed them have made any effort to educate voters.

Since 2010, 12 states have passed laws requiring voters to show government-issued identification in order to vote. One such law is Pennsylvania's, where studies estimate anywhere from 780,000 to 1.2 million could be turned away at the polls on Election Day because of new ID requirements. A state court is expected to rule this week on whether the law can go forward, but in the meantime, many have blasted Pennsylvania's anemic efforts to inform voters. Because the state originally estimated that far fewer voters would be affected, the plan was simply to remind those who turned out for the April primaries that they would need an ID next time around. The state also conducted a much-criticized PR campaign by a Republican-owned firm—during the court proceedings, a political scientist testified that one-third of Pennsylvania voters were unaware of the law. 

The point of these laws is to decrease turnout among poor, nonwhite, young, and elderly voters—those more likely to vote Democratic—and thereby give Republicans an electoral advantage. Informing and preparing voters defeats the point. But conservative lawmakers are likely to keep pushing the laws, and voting-rights advocates could alleviate some of the harm by pushing for comprehensive plans to educate voters. Plus somewhere, a state might actually want to inform voters about what happened at the state capital. It all begs the question: What exactly would a good voter education campaign look like? 

Georgia faced that question five years ago. As a state with a history of voter suppression, the Peach State must get precleared by the feds before it can implement changes to election law. After its voter ID law was approved by the Department of Justice during George W. Bush's tenure (over objections by some in the department), the law then went to the federal courts, where a district judge granted an injunction and an appeals court upheld it. Among other things, the courts demanded the state do a better job informing voters of the change. Georgia got to work doing extensive voter outreach, launching a website about the requirements and placing ads on the Clear Channel radio network. Brochures and postcards went out to voters. Eventually, in 2007, the law went into effect.

Still, Georgia's experience proved one thing: A real education campaign isn’t cheap. As a 2011 report from the Brennan Center notes:

Other states looking to impose a photo ID requirement should be prepared to undertake a similarly costly effort if they want their laws to survive a court challenge.  These costs are likely to include: mailings to all citizens informing them of new ID requirements and how to obtain a voter ID; production of radio and television public service announcements; purchase of airtime to broadcast these public service announcements; purchase of space in newspapers to advertise new voter ID requirements; and website modifications to publicize new voter ID requirements. These costs will be borne by state and local officials and may be similar to the costs of recent campaigns to educate voters about new voting machines.

But spending wads of cash and printing some nice brochures isn’t all a state’s got to do. The campaign must target the populations that are disproportionately likely to lack the necessary identification. According to Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, that’s much easier said than done. “Look to see if any of those education plans have any relationship with who doesn’t have ID,” she says. “It’s got to be more comprehensive than saying there’s going to be a [public service announcement] on a certain television station at 2 o’clock in the morning.” The digital divide, Gaskins says, often aligns with the divide between those who do and do not have ID, so the internet is after not the best place either.

Furthermore, once you find media that reach those voters, the messaging must be right—Spanish language ads or those featuring nonwhite voters can sometimes more easily communicate a message to these communities.

Philadelphia has an independent group doing intensive outreach. The group, the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, is canvassing neighborhoods where there’s likely to be people without ID. The group also plans to start making calls using names from the voter rolls, and is conducting trainings in conjunction with churches and civic groups. With 140 member organizations, it has reach into the affected communities, from Puerto Rican neighborhoods, to African American areas, to college campuses—and thanks to the legal centers involved, advocates can offer advice to those who face complications getting an ID.

These groups are doing what the state should be: an all-hands-on-deck approach to getting the word out to voters. But there's little money; the operation is almost entirely volunteer-based. With only three months until the November elections, they're waging an uphill battle to get to hundreds of thousands of voters without ID in time. Studies have shown in Philadelphia nearly one in five voters may lack the necessary ID. Nonetheless, the group has offered an innovative model for reaching those populations that are hard to reach, one states might emulate.

Now let's see Pennsylvania—or any state really—commit to such an approach. Or at least start picking up some of the slack.

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