This summer I had the opportunity to study voter identity laws under the mentorship of Professor Yphtach Lelkes of the Annenberg School for Communication. My project focused on how these laws affect perceptions of political legitimacy and trust in the democratic process. Over the course of my PURM experience, I not only learned a great deal about this very timely issue, but also developed many important research skills.
Although voter identity laws date back to the 1950s, they have become much more controversial in recent years, as many states have passed strict laws that require voters to present photo identification at the polls. Proponents of these laws argue that they prevent voter fraud and increase voters’ trust in the electoral process, while opponents contend that the incidence of voter fraud in the United States is very low; instead, these laws disenfranchise people who are less likely to have photographic identification, especially poor and minority voters. I began the project by researching the history of these laws and conducting a literature review of the oeuvre of academic research on voter identity laws.
However, the most exciting element of the project was conducting quantitative research on how these laws affect perceptions of electoral legitimacy. I first created a database of voter identity laws in every state over the past fifty years, coding the strictness of each state’s laws based on documents required to vote and the procedures in place for when a voter lacks the proper identification. Then, using survey data from a nationally representative sample of voters, Professor Lelkes and I analyzed how differences in these laws between states over the years affected voters’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. I made my first foray into the world of coding, learning how to use the programming language R to analyze data and create maps and graphics. It was especially interesting to gain exposure to the quantitative side of political science and identify a clear trend in the data that has important implications for the future of American politics. Ultimately, we determined that in states where stricter voter identity laws were enacted, people trusted the results of their elections less, the opposite effect that these laws are intended to have.
The culmination of my project was beginning work on an academic paper that Professor Lelkes and I eventually hope to publish. I had the chance to learn about the conventions of academic writing and got to see firsthand how a paper comes together. My PURM experience was an amazing supplement to my studies during the year as a political science major, and I learned invaluable skills that will be incredibly useful in the future.