Why Do Many Minorities Lack ID?

Investigating one of the big factors in the debate over those new voter-ID laws.

Identification in wallet.
The most common voter ID is a driver’s license, and minorities are less likely to drive

Photograph by Medioimages/Photodisc.

The Justice Department notified the commonwealth of Virginia on Monday night that it would not object to its new voter ID law. The Virginia requirement is just the latest such law at the center of a heated debate leading up to the 2012 election, with Republicans generally supporting the laws as a means to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats allege that the laws will disenfranchise minorities, who less often have valid IDs. Why do minorities have fewer IDs?

Because a lot of minorities don’t have much use for them. The most common voter ID is a driver’s license, and minorities are less likely to drive. A 2007 study found that in California, New Mexico, and Washington, whites were more likely to have driver’s licenses than nonwhites. In Orange County, Calif., about 92 percent of white voters had driver’s licenses, compared with only 84 percent of Latino voters and 81 percent of “other” voters. A 2005 study of Wisconsin similarly found that while about 80 percent of white residents had licenses, only about half of African-American and Hispanic residents had licenses.

Minorities are less likely to have driver’s licenses because they are more likely to be poor and to live in urban areas. If you can’t afford a car, or if you don’t need one because you take the bus or subway, you are less likely to have a driver’s license. Students are less likely to have driver’s licenses for the same reasons (plus the fact that they can sometimes rely on student IDs, and may just have not gotten around to getting a driver’s license yet). Moreover, minorities may be more likely to have lost their driver’s licenses: The Wisconsin study found that an estimated 8 percent of Hispanic adults and 17 percent of African-American adults had no current license but had a recent suspension or revocation. Almost half of suspended driver’s licenses were due to failure to pay outstanding fines, which may explain why poor people are less likely to have licenses.

Driver’s licenses are not the only accepted forms of identification, but minorities may face extra challenges in securing other legally valid IDs. Passports, military IDs, and other government-issued photo ID are generally accepted, and some states accept student ID cards from state universities. Texas accepts concealed-weapons licenses, but New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice points out that African-Americans are also less likely to have these concealed-gun permits. For voters who need to secure a valid ID, tracking down the necessary documents—such as a birth certificate and social security card—can take time and money, and the Brennan Center additionally reports that many voting centers are far away from minority voters and are rarely open. Minorities also move from state to state more frequently, which makes meeting varying requirements for documentation more difficult, and Hispanics often use different naming customs, which can make for additional confusion at the DMV or voting booth. Additionally, the Brennan Center suggests that minority voters are more likely to be carded at the polls.

Of course, minority voters aren’t the only group likely to be disenfranchised. Seniors, for example, are also less likely to drive. Academic studies suggest that voter ID laws do probably reduce turnout, both among Democrats and Republicans, but not by more than about 2 percent.

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Explainer thanks Charles S. Bullock III of the University of Georgia, Gabriel Sanchez of the University of New Mexico, Carol M. Swain of Vanderbilt University, and David C. Wilson of the University of Delaware.