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Addressing the NAACP at its annual convention in Houston, Attorney General Eric Holder stressed his commitment to battling states such as Texas seeking to put in place laws requiring citizens to show a government-approved photo ID before voting at the polls.
According to the prepared text of his July 10, 2012, speech, Holder recapped the Justice Department’s decision not to approve the Texas law’s implementation after deciding it would be harmful to minority voters. Separately, the State of Texas, led by its attorney general, Greg Abbott, has sued the government toward winning judicial approval of the law, which the Republican-led Legislature approved in 2011.
Holder credited the NAACP with "working to raise awareness about the potential impact of this and other similar laws, and the fact that – according to some recent studies – nationally, only 8 percent of white voting-age citizens, while 25 percent of African-American voting-age citizens, lack a government-issued photo ID. In our efforts to protect voting rights and to prevent voting fraud, we will be vigilant and strong. But let me be clear: We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right."
We asked the Justice Department how Holder reached his percentages and didn’t immediately hear back.
But the references to 8 percent and 25 percent, respectively, were familiar to us.
In a January 2012 fact check, we rated Mostly True a claim by Democratic U.S. Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and John Lewis of Georgia that up to "one in four African Americans do not carry the necessary forms of identification to vote" under the conditions of state photo ID laws.
At the time, we noted that the figure originated in a 2006 survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
The center combines research and legal advocacy on public policy issues such as campaign finance reform and racial balance in criminal law, and it has said that state efforts to require photo IDs from voters at the polls could discourage millions from voting, especially minority and low-income Americans. In an October 2011 report, the center said that in five states where photo ID laws were scheduled to take effect in 2012, some 3.2 million Americans, accounting for about 10 percent of the states’ voting-age residents, lacked government-issued photo IDs.
Two of those states -- Texas and South Carolina -- must have their laws cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice because of past failures to protect minority voting rights. The department rejected South Carolina’s law in December 2011 (saying that minority registered voters were more likely than whites to lack state IDs) and declined to bless the Texas law in March 2012.
The Texas law would require voters to show a valid government-issued photo ID, such as a Texas driver's license, Department of Public Safety identification card, state concealed handgun license, U.S. military ID or U.S. passport.
Back to the nationwide data: The center’s 2006 survey reached by telephone 987 U.S. citizens of voting age, asking them questions including, "Do you have a current, unexpired government-issued ID with your picture on it, like a driver’s license or a military ID?"
As voter ID debates heated up in 2011, the conservative Heritage Foundation issued a critique of the survey, noting it was still frequently cited and questioning its decision not to focus on registered or actual voters. The Brennan Center’s response said in part, "While it is true that citizens in those groups are more likely to vote in any given election, they are not the only citizens who have the right to vote."
Overall, according to the survey, 11 percent of voting-age Americans did not have current government-issued photo ID. Among African Americans, 25 percent did not have such ID, compared to 8 percent of whites. Not enough Hispanics were surveyed to reach reliable conclusions about that subgroup, the center said.
In a December 2011 report, the NAACP mentioned the 25-percent figure from the 2006 survey, going on to say that factors in individuals not having IDs may include the cost of getting a photo ID (because minorities are over-represented in the poor population) or a lack of the documents needed to apply for the photo ID, such as birth certificates (not issued to many African Americans born before the Civil Rights Act passed), which also can cost money to obtain.
When we looked into the Democrats’ claim, we found no other national surveys by race of which U.S. citizens eligible to vote have government-issued photo IDs. Two national surveys taken in 2008, however, checked on registered voters.
Before the 2008 presidential election, researchers from the University of Washington and other schools carried out a national telephone survey of 4,563 registered voters. In the survey, 10 percent of blacks, 11 percent of Hispanics and 5 percent of whites said they did not have a valid driver's license or an ID issued by their home state.
Another survey, reaching 10,000 registered voters via phone and Internet after the 2008 election, included questions about driver’s license ownership by race. In an Aug. 30, 2011, blog post, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Charles Stewart III said responses showed that 19 percent of black respondents and 3 percent of whites did not have a driver’s license. In his blog post, Stewart did not break out results for Hispanic respondents.
Among half a dozen other studies, ranging in scope from three counties to three states, several struck us as having limited applicability:
- The NAACP report said a 2008 Pew Center study in Georgia showed 30 percent of African Americans said they voted absentee because they lacked a photo ID. However, this statistic reflects the responses of only 30 voters in three counties, and the Pew report warns against using it to draw conclusions.
- A 2005 Department of Justice summary of state data said that among registered voters who applied for Georgia driver’s licenses or state ID cards, African Americans had state ID at a "slightly higher" percentage than whites.
- A 2011 Associated Press analysis of South Carolina data showed the state’s photo ID law would fall harder on black populations in some areas and on whites in other areas.
Two other surveys asked questions closest to matching the statement by Holder.
A 2007 survey of Indiana’s voting-age citizens found 26.6 percent of blacks and 13.6 percent of whites did not have a "current" government-issued or state university-issued photo ID.
A 2008 survey of registered voters in Indiana, Mississippi and Maryland found 3.8 percent of blacks and 0.9 percent of whites did not have government-issued photo IDs.
Holder’s figures appear to trace to a single national survey taken about six years ago though, far as we can tell, mostly unchallenged since.
Other collections of data do not touch on exactly the same points, but most indicate that African Americans are less likely than whites to hold varied kinds of government-issued IDs, with percentages of blacks without such IDs ranging from nearly 4 percent to more than 26 percent and percentages of whites having such an ID ranging from 1 percent to nearly 14 percent.
We rate Holder’s claim as Mostly True.
Speech, Attorney General Eric Holder, July 10, 2012
Truth-O-Meter article, "Democratic leaders say up to a quarter of African Americans don’t have government photo ID," January 13, 2012
Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law report, "Citizens Without Proof," November 2006
Telephone interview with Brennan Center senior communications coordinator Erik Opsal, July 11, 2012
Heritage Foundation report, "Without Proof: The Unpersuasive Case Against Voter Identification," Aug. 24, 2011
Brennan Center commentary, "‘Citizens Without Proof’ Stands Strong," Sept. 8, 2011
NAACP report, "Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America," Dec. 5, 2011
University of Washington’s Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race working paper, "The Disproportionate Impact of Indiana Voter ID Requirements on the Electorate," Nov. 8, 2007
Report by Charles Stewart III of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and coauthors, "2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections: Final Report," March 1, 2009
Entry on Caltech.edu blog Election Updates by Charles Stewart III, "What More Can We Learn from SC?," Aug. 30, 2011
Pew Center on the States report, "A Survey of Georgia Voters in the 2008 General Election," December 2009
U.S. Department of Justice letter from U.S. Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella to U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond, Oct. 7, 2005
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute report, "The Driver License Status of the Voting Age Population in Wisconsin," June 2005.
American University survey, "Voter IDs Are Not the Problem: A Survey of Three States," Jan. 9, 2008
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