Study: Legislators who back voter ID laws less likely to respond to Latino constituents

Study: Legislators who back voter ID laws less likely to respond to Latino constituents
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State legislators who sponsored or co-sponsored bills that would require voters to show identification at the polls were far less likely to aid constituents with Latino-sounding names than those who did not back voter ID laws, according to a new study.

The study, from University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose and California State University political scientist Matthew Mendez, raises new questions about whether state legislators serve Latino constituents the same way they do white constituents.

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The two political scientists sent letters to state legislators in the 14 states where Hispanics make up the highest percentage of the population. In those letters, constituents — one with a white-sounding name and one with a Latino-sounding name — told legislators they did not have a driver’s license and wondered whether they would still be able to vote.

“My name is Jacob Smith and I have heard a lot in the news lately about identification being required at the polls. I do not have a driver’s license. Can I still vote in November? Thank you for your help,” one version of the letter said. The other version is identically worded, except it is sent from a Santiago Rodriguez.

State legislators who did not sponsor or cosponsor legislation to create new voter identification requirements, regardless of whether they were Republicans or Democrats, were equally likely to respond to letters from constituents named Smith or Rodriguez.

But among state legislators who did sponsor those voter identification laws, response rates were far higher for the Caucasian-sounding name than they were for the Latino-sounding name.

“The legislators who sponsored voter ID just weren’t as interested in responding to Latino constituents,” Grose said in an interview. “In those specific legislative districts, those who supported voter ID, they just aren’t representing Latinos in either voting or constituency services.”

Grose pointed to earlier studies that showed legislators who opposed civil rights legislation, like the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), nonetheless aided African American constituents just as much as they did their white constituents.

The audit study is a common practice in sociology and economics, where researchers might send identical resumes with different names to companies that advertise job openings. It found about half of all legislators responded to the constituent with the white-sounding name Jacob Smith, but just 44 percent responded to Santiago Rodriguez.

The entirety of that six-point gap, Grose said, came from legislators who sponsored or co-sponsored voter identification laws.

Legislators of all stripes were far less likely to respond to constituents who wrote in Spanish. Only about one in eight Spanish-language letters got a response from both those who sponsored and those who did not sponsor voter ID measures, something the researchers speculated might be caused by a lack of Spanish-language knowledge among legislative staff.

But the gap between response rates to a white-sounding name and a Latino-sounding name was even more pronounced in those Spanish-language emails. Legislators who backed voter identification laws responded to 13 percent of the Jacob Smith emails sent in Spanish, and just 2 percent of those sent by Santiago Rodriguez. Among those who did not sponsor voter ID laws, the response rates were almost identical.

Thirty-four states have laws on the books requiring or requesting that voters show identification at the polls. Seven states — Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin — require voters to show an identification at the polls. Arizona, North Dakota and Ohio allow voters to show a non-photo identification.

Twenty-four states have what are known as non-strict identification laws in place. In those states, a voter may sign an affidavit attesting to his or her identity, or they may have to cast a provisional ballot.

Opponents of voter identification laws say they disproportionately impact minority voters and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, who are either less likely or less able to obtain a driver’s license or other state-issued identification. Proponents say the identification systems increase election integrity by keeping out those who are not eligible to cast a ballot.

The study, “Doubling Down: Inequality in Responsiveness and the Policy Preferences of Elected Officials,” will appear in the next issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly.