Voter ID laws posed big hurdle for minority youth in 2012 elections, study confirms

At polling places across America in November 2012, Latinos and African Americans under age 30 were disproportionately asked for identification, even in states that do not have voter ID laws, according to a post-election analysis by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago.

“Our study shows that voter ID laws have disproportionately severe consequences for youth of color,” says co-author Jon C. Rogowski, PhD, assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

“Whether the biases are conscious or unconscious, the result of these laws is that people of color are effectively being disenfranchised. Our nation has an obligation to ensure that everyone has equal access to the voting booth.”


The study, released this week by the Black Youth Project, is co-authored by Cathy Cohen, PhD, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

The study, Black and Latino Youth Disproportionately Affected by Voter Identification Laws in the 2012 Election, offers a summary of minority voter experiences in each state that has some form of voter identification law.

Overall, 17.3 percent of black youth and 8.1 percent of Latino youth reported that the lack of required identification prevented them from voting, compared to just 4.7 percent of white youth.

By documenting that voter identification laws are applied unevenly across
racial groups and have significant discriminatory effects on Latino and
Black youths, the study reaffirms that the Voting Rights Act still plays an important role in protecting the ability of people of color to participate in elections as
full and equal citizens, researchers say.

In particular, the study’s results underscore the importance of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of discrimination to receive pre-clearance from the Justice Department before implementing voting law changes. The Justice Department had voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas struck down, but the Voting Rights Act provision faces a challenge in the Supreme Court.

The study offers clear evidence that voter identification laws are applied disproportionately across racial groups, and this is true both for identification requirements in general and photo ID requirements in particular. Minorities are asked for identification more often, even in states that do not have identification requirements.


“The uneven application of these laws suggests that polling place workers exercise a high level of discretion in requesting ID from potential voters,” Cohen says. “Unless all polling places – and all poll workers – apply voting laws in a consistent manner, the very existence of identification laws makes young people of color more likely than white youth to be asked to prove their identity.”

Specifically, the research showed that:

  • Nearly three-quarters (72.3 percent) of young Black voters were asked for some form of identification, compared with 50.8 percent of young white voters and 60.8 percent of young Latino voters.
  • Young Black (64.5 percent) and Latino (57.0 percent) voters were considerably more likely to be asked to show photo identification to vote compared to young white voters (42.2 percent).
  • Nearly two-thirds (65.5 percent) of Black youth were asked to show identification in states without ID requirements, compared with 55.3 percent of Latino youth and 42.8 percent of white youth.
  • In states with voter identification laws, higher percentages of Black youth (94.3 percent) were asked for ID compared with Latino (81.8 percent) and white (84.3 percent) youth.

Cohen and Rogowski suggest that unequal access to photo identification contributes to the disproportionate impact that identification laws have on minority voters. Black and Latino youth possess official state-issued identification at considerably lower rates than white youth. More than 85 percent of white youths have a driver’s license, compared with 71.2 percent of Black youths and 67.0 percent of Latino youths.

GfK Knowledge Networks collected data for the study between Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, 2012. The target population was African American, Latino and white adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Households were sampled by KnowledgePanel, a probability-based web panel. A total of 3,517 households were sampled, yielding a sample size of 1,522 respondents.

“The 2012 election was marked by a surprisingly high turnout from youths of color, but this shouldn’t turn attention away from the disproportionate and discriminatory impact of state voter identification requirements,” Cohen said. “There are many reasons why people may choose not to vote, but enacting new laws that disproportionately affect particular populations should not be among them.”

Editor’s Note: This story was adapted from a news release issued by The Black Youth Project. The media contact there is Michael K. Frisby;; 202-625-4328.