Usually when some sententious centrist talks about ending partisan polarization and just coming up with "solutions" based on "data" or "studies" or "expert consensus," the appropriate response is to roll your eyes — the way people have been eye-rolling lately at Howard Schultz of Starbucks and his apparently substance-free vision for an independent presidential campaign. Usually where you find polarization, you also find some issue of great moment, some important conflict of interests or values, that can’t just be turned over to the smart people to solve because any "solution" would inevitably be a victory for one side and a defeat for the other.
But there are occasional exceptions: Polarizing issues where you could essentially call a truce without anyone winning or losing, without it affecting the balance of power in America’s political debates and culture wars, without anything disappearing except a lot of nonsense, hysteria and panic.
My candidate for the exception is the debate over voter ID laws. For as long as I’ve been politically conscious, conservatives have touted tougher identification requirements at the polls as a means to fight the scourge of voter fraud, and over the last decade Republicans have successfully implemented voter ID laws in a number of reddish states. Over the same period those laws have been cited by liberals as evidence that Republicans are bent on winning elections by disenfranchising Democrats — locking out poor and minority voters in a rerun of the Jim Crow-poll tax era, and electing conservative politicians at the expense of democracy itself.
You could imagine a world in which the voter ID debate reflected a real and sweeping clash of interests. If conservatives were right that the laws reduced rampant voter fraud by preventing illegal immigrants from voting for Democrats in large numbers, and meanwhile liberals were also right that the laws dramatically reduced turnout among African-Americans and other liberal-leaning constituencies, effectively limiting the right to vote, then the whole debate would be extremely consequential and difficult to resolve.
In this world, however, the stakes seem to be considerably lower. That’s the conclusion of a new study, one of the largest to date, from the economists Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons, which assessed the impact of voter ID laws between 2008 and 2016 using a nationwide voter file. The study finds that requiring voter identification has no effect on turnout — not overall, and not on "any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation."
If that shocks you, it shouldn’t. The evidence that voter ID laws meaningfully suppress minority votes has always been shaky; a literature review in 2017 that filtered out studies with obvious design flaws reported "modest, if any, turnout effects of voter identification laws" in the best research on the subject. So a voter ID requirement might possibly affect the closest of close races, based on what we’ve learned up till now — but if the Cantoni and Pons results hold up, the real effect is basically nil.
But before conservatives claim vindication, the new paper also casts doubt on the argument for voter ID laws, finding no effect on fraud itself, nor even any effect on public confidence in the integrity of the ballot. Which should be even less surprising than the absence of evidence for voter suppression, because since the George W. Bush administration a large group of people with strong incentives to uncover voter fraud — Republican lawmakers, law-enforcement personnel and conservative election researchers — have failed to produce any evidence that the problem exists on a scale that requires a legislative response. And the rare prosecuted cases generally seem disproportionate to the offense involved — with confused individuals in the dock rather than old-fashioned Chicago-style machines.
There is more to the voting-rights debate than just voter ID laws; nothing in the new study settles arguments about early voting, absentee balloting and more. Still, because the ID debate is a particular flash point, its findings are a real public service. No matter where you stand on the voter fraud-voter suppression controversies, these findings strengthen the case for dialing down outrage, reducing anxiety and generally recognizing that if we stopped pushing for these laws and stopped freaking out about how they supposedly doom democracy, voting in America would rattle along basically unchanged.
But since it’s conservatives and Republicans who are the prime mover here, because they’re generally the ones pushing legal changes, they also have the primary obligation to step back and stand down.
Despite what many liberals believe, much of the right’s anxiety about voter fraud is sincere, not just a cynical cover for racist vote suppression. I have had enough arguments with fellow conservatives on this issue to attest that the specter of those old Chicago operations haunts the right, along with more contemporary fears generated by a left that really does want to extend some of the benefits of citizenship to illegal immigrants.
At the same time there’s also no question that a lot of Republican operatives pushing voter ID laws are cynics who expect their party to benefit from lower minority turnout, and a number of professional right-wing partisans — including our president — see an upside in frightening their voters or viewers with the racialized threat of "urban" ballot-stuffing.
Which, again, is what makes the evidence from this study so helpful: It offers reasons for both the conservative sincerely worried about voter fraud and the operative cynically hoping for lower Democratic turnout to let this issue slide.
And in letting it slide, Republicans might even have more to gain than Democrats. After all, the cynical side of the voter ID push is pretty transparent, meaning that even if the laws don’t have real vote-suppressing consequences, they do serve as a continuing gesture of disrespect to minority voters, a continuing expression of GOP indifference to the African-American memory of what vote restrictions used to mean. So their removal from the Republican agenda could be an act of minority outreach unto itself.
Maybe that’s too optimistic. But even without that upside, the case for standing down is strong. The voter ID debate essentially involves Republicans whipping themselves into a panic over a problem that doesn’t meaningfully affect their chances of winning elections, and then passing laws that whip Democrats into a panic over a problem that also doesn’t meaningfully affect their chances of winning elections. So if the debate simply disappeared tomorrow, a source of distrust would vanish without either side losing ground. There are few cases where that’s possible. Let’s seize this one.
Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) is a columnist for The New York Times.