Staying in Power: The Origins of Voter ID Laws and Their Role in Electoral Strategy Today


States oversee and administer elections. While the federal government recently enacted election- related policies to make participation easier for potential voters, with recent policies like voter ID, some states have resisted this and have chosen to implement stringent practices that make it harder to vote. Today, despite evidence that voter impersonation is extremely rare, 34 states have implemented some form of voter ID. Public support for voter ID laws is malleable, suggesting that elites lead public opinion. I argue that voter ID laws are elite-driven devices that legislators use to retain political power when changing demographics disfavor them and pose an existential threat to their electoral viability. This electoral strategy is a means to power when it is unfeasible for these legislators to reach out to racial minority voters successfully for support. I examine the impact of race/ethnicity and electoral competition in legislators’ support for them. The restrictive voting laws prior to the civil rights movement were explicitly racially discriminatory, but in order to overcome legal challenges, legislators write restrictive voting laws today to be race neutral and to produce a racially discriminatory effect. This study takes a holistic approach, examining legislator intent behind voter ID laws, by using historical context around restrictive voting laws to establish the link between the restrictive voting laws of the past and those of today in the literature. First, I examine archived sources to understand how voter ID laws developed from other discriminatory tests and devices. Second, I examine why states pass and implement these laws, including what demographic and electoral conditions make legislators more likely to author, sponsor, and/or support these policies. Many scholars today examine voter ID laws through the lens of voter fraud and partisanship, but I argue that is misguided and ignores 150 years of targeted voter suppression against Black people, Latinos, and immigrants. After Shelby v Holder (2013) struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, restrictive voting laws have become more common and will continue to be implemented widely for the foreseeable future.


  • Matt Barreto (Chair)
  • Natalie Masuoka
  • Lorrie Frasure
  • Loren Collingwood
  • Chad Dunn


“Introducing People of Color Also Know Stuff.” with Danielle Lemi and Maricruz Osorio. [Article]

Working Papers

“Jim Crow in a Fancy Suit: The Impact of Electoral Pressures on the Prominence of Voter ID Laws.” (Presented at the American Political Science Association’s 2021 Annual Meeting).

“Estimating the Effects of Strict Voter ID Laws at the County Level.” (Presented at the American Political Science Association’s 2019 Annual Meeting).

“Perceived Racial Efficacy and Voter Engagement Among African-Americans: A Cautionary Tale from 2016.” with Matt Barreto, Jonathan Collins, and Gregory Leslie. [Paper]

“Relieving the Conscience: White Guilt and Candidate Evaluation.” with Loren Collingwood and Francisco Pedraza. [Citation]

Published Reports

“Vote Choice of Latino Voters in the 2020 Presidential Election.” (2021) with the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative. [Project] [Report]

“Protecting Public Health in the 2020 Elections.” (2020) with the UCLA Voting Rights Project, Voting Rights Lab, and Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. [Project] [Report]

“Protecting Democracy: Implementing Equal and Safe Access to the Ballot Box During a Global Pandemic.” (2020) with the UCLA Voting Rights Project. [Project] [Report]

“Implementing and Assessing Automatic Voter Registration: Lessons Learned and Policy Recommendations to Improve Voter Registration in the U.S.” with the UCLA Voting Rights Project. [Project] [Report]

“Debunking the Myth of Voter Fraud in Mail Ballots.” (2020) with the UCLA Voting Rights Project, University of New Mexico Center for Social Policy, and Union of Concerned Scientists. [Project] [Report]

“Age Discrimination in Voting at Home.” (2020) with the UCLA Voting Rights Project, Equal Citizens, Vote At Home, and The Andrew Goodman Foundation. [Project] [Report]

“Whitewashing Representation: How Using Citizenship Data to Gerrymander Will Undermine Our Democracy.” (2019) with Common Cause Educational Fund. [Project] [Report]