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With Midterms Over, Voter ID Law Effects Get Close Look

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In North Carolina, early voting was cut by seven days. In Kansas, 22,000 people were stopped from registering to vote because they lacked proof of citizenship. And in Texas, Democrats say the country’s toughest voter ID law contributed to a one-term congressman losing a tight race to his Republican rival.

After an Election Day that featured a wave of new voting restrictions across the country, data and details about who cast a ballot are being picked over to see if tighter rules swayed the outcomes of any races or contributed to the lowest voter turnout in 72 years.

Since 2011, a dozen Republican-led states have passed strict voter ID requirements, some blocked by courts, measures that Republicans describe as needed to increase confidence in elections and critics call the modern equivalent of a poll tax, intended to suppress turnout by Democratic voters.

Few are arguing that the laws dramatically affected the overall results in a year that produced sweeping Republican victories or that they are the dominant factor in voter participation. Although some Democrats claim the new laws may have swung close elections this month, voting experts caution that it is too soon to tell.

At the least, however, the country is in the midst of a broad experiment with voting restrictions at a time of already depressed voting rates. The trend is likely to accelerate with the 2016 election, when new hurdles are scheduled to go into effect and with Republicans taking control of nine new state legislative chambers on Election Day. Nevada, where the party flipped both houses, may become the latest state with a photo ID law.

Republican activists dispute the argument that ID laws limit voting and say Democrats are sounding the alarm to inspire their base. The issue is complicated because academic efforts to measure if restrictive laws depress turnout have produced mixed results.

In Texas, Democratic officials said the state’s voter ID law was a large part of the reason that turnout was among the lowest in the country this year. Supporters of Rep. Pete Gallego, who lost a House race in West Texas by just 2,400 votes, or 2 percent, blamed the ID law, which a federal judge said disenfranchised up to 600,000 voters statewide who did not have the proper documents.

"Republicans counted on voter ID suppressing Democratic-leaning minority turnout by a couple of points," said Anthony Gutierrez, Gallego’s campaign manager. "That appears to be exactly what happened, and in our race it was enough to change the outcome."

Republicans in Texas disputed any claims of a partisan advantage, pointing to the landslide victory of Greg Abbott, a Republican, in the governor’s race. His margin was greater than the number of voters without IDs. Republicans say that in six elections since the ID law took effect, there has been no significant confusion.

Laws increasing the burden on voters — including ID requirements, cutbacks in early voting and proof of citizenship rules — were passed in recent years in the name of preventing fraud.

Opponents say photo IDs, aimed at deterring the nearly nonexistent crime of in-person fraud, and other rules are really meant to depress voting by young people, minorities and the poor, groups that lean Democratic. An October study by the Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws contributed to lower turnout, particularly by those groups, in races in Kansas and Tennessee in 2012.

Nationally, turnout was the worst this year in a midterm election since 1942, providing ammunition to those arguing the restrictive laws make it harder to vote.

In Texas, turnout fell to 33.6 percent. In Colorado, where a Democratic-led Legislature passed expansive new voting rules, allowing everyone to mail in a ballot, turnout was the fourth-highest in the country, 53 percent.

But such raw numbers can be deceptive, experts said, hiding the many reasons people decide to vote. Texas has historically low turnout and did not have a competitive statewide race this year. Colorado has long had above-average turnout.

Despite the national trend, 14 states had higher turnout compared with the 2010 midterms. All featured highly competitive governor’s races or figured in the battle for Senate control, which brought a deluge of outside spending on TV ads and intense news coverage. The states included Louisiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida and Kansas.

Voting rights advocates raised eyebrows about the role of voting restrictions in races that were narrowly decided. Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which has challenged voting restrictions in court, said that in some key races, Republicans won tight victories that were close to what she called the "margin of disenfranchisement."

In North Carolina, Weiser noted, 200,000 voters cast ballots over seven days of early voting in 2010 — a window used especially by African-Americans — that was eliminated this year. Thom Tillis, a Republican, defeated Sen. Kay Hagen by just 48,000 votes.

Similarly, Weiser pointed to Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, was re-elected by fewer than 33,000 votes, or 2.8 percent. At the same time, 22,000 would-be voters, whose registrations were suspended for lack of a document to prove their citizenship, did not get to cast a ballot. Kansas also has a strict voter ID law, which a federal government study this year said suppressed turnout by about 2 percent. It had a greater impact on young and black voters.

"These laws should give us pause," Weiser said. "They’re creating disenfranchisement. We have enough information to gauge what the order of magnitude is, and it’s close to the order of magnitude of the margins of victory."

But Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris W. Kobach, who wrote the law requiring proof of citizenship to register and a photo ID to vote, dismissed the suggestion that it played a role in suppressing turnout. "Voter turnout in the November 2014 election was 50 percent, exactly what it was in the November 2010 election before we adopted our photo ID law — also 50 percent," he said.

Kobach said, "The facts show that photo ID did not reduce turnout, and proof of citizenship did not stop Kansas from setting an all-time high in the number of registered voters."

Weiser said she was not implying that any of this month’s victories were illegitimate, but other commentators, especially on the left, have not been so restrained, implying that voter requirement laws are already deciding elections.

But there are problems in leaping to such conclusions, voting experts said. In North Carolina, despite the elimination of seven days of early voting, overall early voting was up by 35 percent compared with 2010, according to the U.S. Election Project at the University of Florida.

Election experts said that to determine how many voters were disenfranchised because of the restrictions, it would be necessary to control for many factors, including differences in turnout by African-Americans when President Barack Obama was not a candidate and the competitiveness of the race.

"Turnout is complex and affected by many things," said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. "I think it is far too early to assess the impact of changes in voting laws on turnout."

Voting rights advocates argue that the test of restrictive laws should not be how they affect turnout in any given election or even swing individual elections, but simply whether they disenfranchise any voters.

"Wholly apart from the question whether there’s going to be any demonstrable effect on turnout or election outcomes, there’s a real harm here," said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. "Nobody should be denied the right to vote who’s eligible, absent good reason."

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