Plain Speaking

Colin Powell Lashes Out at the GOP’s Bogus Claims on Voter Fraud

In a speech in North Carolina, Powell assailed his party’s bogus charges of voter fraud. Jamelle Bouie examines the evidence.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Colin Powell still calls himself a Republican, but since endorsing Barack Obama for president in 2008, he’s distanced himself from the hyper-partisanship that’s consumed the party over the last four years. He underscored that distance yesterday during North Carolina’s annual CEO forum, where he harshly criticized the state’s new voting law in his speech to attendees.

“I want to see policies that encourage every American to vote, not make it more difficult to vote,” Powell told an audience of 430, which included Governor Pat McCrory, who signed the law last week. He attacked the idea that there was an epidemic of voter fraud in the state: “You can say what you like, but there is no voter fraud … How can it be widespread and undetected?” And he said that the law sends the wrong message to minority voters, who—in North Carolina—are largely African American. “What it really says to the minority voters is,” he said, “‘We really are sort of punishing you.’”

Not only is Powell now the most high-profile critic of North Carolina’s voting law but his comments echo similar criticisms from civil-rights activists and others who say the law makes it harder for students and minorities to vote. But is that true? Those who cover the issue—including myself—say it’s hard to dispute the conclusion that these laws harm turnout among Democratic-leaning groups. Just look at the provisions of the North Carolina law: It forbids the use of student and public-employee IDs, it reduces early voting hours, and it empowers election vigilantes to challenge voters. And since passing the law, Republicans have launched an all-out attack on student voting, closing precincts near colleges and universities, thereby blocking students from running for local office.

But beyond our direct observations, there’s a growing body of empirical evidence that supports our claims, and throws water on skeptics who say concerns are overblown. A 2006 study from Timothy Vercellotti of Western New England College and David Andersen of Rutgers University found a strong relationship between voter-ID requirements and lower turnout among registered voters with less than a high school education. Likewise, in a 2008 paper, political scientists R. Michael Alvarez, Delia Bailey, and Jonathan Katz found that the strictest identification requirements had a negative effect on the participation of registered voters in the 2004 election. Brad Gomez of Florida State University found similar results, although the impact was small. And finally, a 2007 study by political scientists Matt Barreto, Stephen Nuño, and Gabriel Sanchez found that low-income citizens—and minorities in particular—were less likely to have the ID necessary to meet the requirements of Indiana’s 2006 voter-identification law.

These conclusions are supported by polling. In a 2006 survey from the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of “registered but rare” voters (who are 23 percent of all voting-age Americans) say their voting is impeded by access—it’s too difficult to get to the polls—and time—they’re just too busy to vote. These voters are disproportionately black (29 percent), Latino (20 percent), and lower income—41 percent make less than $30,000.

Republican protests notwithstanding, voter identification requirements place a significant burden on Democratic constituencies. It’s worth noting that none of these studies deal with the draconian laws passed by Republican state legislatures over the last two years. If these results are any indication, we should expect similar (or greater) results for more recent measures, to say nothing of the policies that explicitly limit access to the ballot.

The obvious rejoinder is that these concerns are moot, since African Americans had a historically high turnout in the 2012 election, surpassing white voters. This is beside the point. Turnout is drawn from people who voted, not the total number of people who could vote. Given the evidence, as well as the unequal application of identification laws—a 2008 study found that black voters were more likely to be asked for ID than whites—it’s hard to argue that these measures didn’t (and won’t) suppress voting among vulnerable groups.

All of this is to say that Colin Powell is right. If these laws have any effect, it’s to keep low-income people and minorities out of the electorate. As for voter fraud? Well, we’re still waiting for any proof it exists.