Then and now: How Stacey Abrams changed her mind on voter ID

I wrote yesterday about the comically absurd pirouette that voting-rights warriors like Abrams and Raphael Warnock have done in order to allow themselves to support Joe Manchin’s compromise bill in the Senate. If you missed that post, here’s Warnock’s new line on voter ID, which Manchin’s bill would make mandatory in all 50 states:

“I have never been opposed to voter ID,” Warnock said. “And in fact, I don’t know anybody who is — who believes people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are. But what has happened over the years is people have played with common sense identification and put into place restrictive measures intended not to preserve the integrity of the outcome, but to select, certain group.”

And here’s Warnock in 2012:

He sounded opposed. Abrams sounded opposed too, and much more recently. The RNC dropped this on her today. Watch, then read on.

Somehow we went from “the new Jim Crow” to “voter ID is fine” once Joe Manchin declared it a dealbreaker for voting reform in the Senate. How about that.

There may be more to what Abrams and Warnock are up to here than meets the eye, though. As a matter of basic strategy, they want to unite the party behind Manchin’s bill to put maximum pressure on him to consider nuking the filibuster when the GOP inevitably blocks it. If progressives balk at the bill over voter ID then it’s dead on arrival and Manchin gets to blame them for its failure. They want him — and the rest of the country — to blame Republicans instead: “Look, we agreed to voter ID and Republicans still won’t compromise on voting rights!” Even if that doesn’t convince Manchin to go nuclear, it’s a good talking point for them with suburban swing voters.

But there may be something else going on. Former Obama speechwriter David Litt has a piece today praising Manchin for making voter ID a key part of his bill, but not because Litt is a fan of the concept. He isn’t. Rather, he understands two things: (1) voter ID is broadly popular with the public and (2) despite Abrams’s and Warnock’s demagoguery, voter ID doesn’t actually do much to suppress turnout.

A 2016 study in Texas, home to some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, surveyed nonvoters from that year’s election in the Democratic stronghold of Harris County. Just 1.5 percent of them listed not having identification as the main reason they didn’t vote. A 2014 Virginia study found that of the 2.2 million eligible voters who tried to cast a ballot in that year’s election, just 474, or approximately one in 4,600, were stymied by lack of ID. These are not outliers. The UC Davis political scientist Benjamin Highton, after surveying ID laws nationwide, concluded that they had “modest, if any, turnout effects.”

Why haven’t voter-ID laws suppressed very many votes? No one really knows. It’s possible that these blatant attempts at voter suppression have created an equal and opposite backlash, driving turnout among the groups intended to be suppressed. It’s also possible that future, more carefully targeted voter-ID laws will be far more effective at manipulating elections. But if this ends up being the case, it will only prove the broader point: Although requiring voter ID is unnecessary, and the politicians who support it tend to do so for deplorable reasons, the act of requiring identification in order to vote is not in and of itself voter suppression.

In fact, Litt notes, Manchin’s bill would actually relax voter ID laws in the sense that he’d allow forms of identification (like utility bills) besides state-issued ID to suffice. Abrams and Warnock and lefties like Beto O’Rourke, who also supports Manchin’s bill, may be thinking along the same lines. If their opposition to voter ID is a political albatross for their bills with the wider American public, which strongly supports the practice, and if voter ID laws don’t actually deter people from voting, then why the hell would they continue to saddle themselves and their movement with the banner of being anti-voter-ID? Manchin’s bill is their opportunity to finally pivot away from it. “We hate voter ID but Joe liked it and we had to go along to try to get the bill passed so now we’re for it.” Swing voters might be more open-minded about Abrams’s proposals going forward if they know that supporting them doesn’t require them to oppose voter ID laws.

So, although Abrams and Warnock are unlikely to see Manchin’s bill pass or the filibuster get nuked, they may have gained something useful from this process — an excuse to take voter ID, a potent issue for the GOP in these battles over election reform, off the table.

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