Public Opinion and Election Law Controversies Past and Present

(coauthored with Stephen Ansolabehere and crossposted)

As part of our national survey of attitudes toward courts and the Constitution performed by Knowledge Networks this past July, we included several items related to election law and voting rights. We wanted to assess public opinion on some contemporary controversies, such as photo ID laws and election-day registration, while also examining classic controversies, such as literacy tests, poll taxes and one person, one vote.

The survey included (among others) the following questions regarding voting rights:

“Below are a list of voting procedures that are or have been used in the United States.
We’d like to know whether you would approve of each of the following in your state.

Require that all people show that they can read in order to vote
55% approve; 44% disapprove

Require that all people show photo identification when they vote
84% approve, 14% disapprove

Require that all voters pay a $5 fee
3% approve; 95% disapprove

Allow people to register on Election Day if they can prove their residency and citizenship
62% approve; 37% disapprove”

On the classic controversies: our poll shows majority support (55%) for literacy tests. This might seem surprising, but this figure is consistent with results from two polls conducted by CNN in June 2006 and October 2007, which asked “Do you think people who cannot read or write English should be permitted to vote, or not?” One concern about those earlier polls was that using the word English might have primed respondents to think about this issue in the context of the contemporaneous debate over immigration, but our poll, which gets the same results, simply says “Require that all people show that they can read in order to vote.”

The same cannot be said for poll taxes, which seem to be almost universally opposed. Only 3 percent support paying a fee in order to vote. Perhaps if the survey had said the fee would be used to pay for elections or public schools (as classic poll taxes did) the figure might be higher, since it seems reasonable to assume that people are generally against abstract fees unconnected to any purpose.

With respect to contemporary controversies, our survey asked about photo ID requirements and Election Day registration. As with most surveys, we found overwhelming support (84%) for photo ID requirements. To be sure, the question did not limit itself to “government issued photo ID,” as many of the challenged laws do, but surveys on photo ID generally find substantial support. Unlike some other surveys that ask about Election Day registration (EDR), we added the qualification “if they can prove their residency and citizenship” and 62 percent of respondents supported EDR when so phrased. Adding that qualification might alter the share supporting EDR (as was our unfounded suspicion with the CNN literacy test questions) by capturing some respondents who focus, in particular, on the citizenship requirement and think the question is asking about raising the barriers to voting rather than lowering them.

It has been a while since surveys have asked about one-person one-vote, and redistricting is a topic most respondents might have difficulty understanding. Recognizing these challenges, we sought to gauge general acceptance of one-person one-vote today. In 1966, a Harris Poll asked: “Another decision of the U.S. (United States) Supreme Court was to… rule all Congressional Districts had to have an equal number of people in them so each person’s vote would count equally. Do you personally think that decision of the U.S. Supreme Court was right or wrong?” 76% said “right” and 24% said “wrong”. In 1969, a Gallup Poll asked: “The U.S. Supreme Court has required states to change their legislative districts so that each member of the lower house and each member of the upper house represents the same number of people. Some people would like to return to the earlier method of electing members of the upper house according to counties or other units regardless of population. Would you favor continuing the present equal districting plan or returning to the earlier plan? 52% said continue present plan; 23% said earlier plan; and 25% had no opinion.

Our survey asked:
“Do you think all legislative districts in your state should have the same number of people per district or is it okay for some to have more people than others?”
Districts should have equal populations – 32%
It’s okay for district populations to differ somewhat – 53%
It’s okay for some districts to have many more people than other districts. – 12%

“Currently all state legislative districts have equal numbers of people. An alternative is to have districts with equal numbers of people in one house of the state legislature but give each county one representative in the other chamber, even though counties have different numbers of people.”
Which way do you think is better?
It is better to have districts with equal populations in both chambers. 54%
It is better to have one seat for each county in one chamber and equal population districts in the other chamber. 40%

The results suggest majority support for something like the current rule of rough population equality for state legislative districts (as opposed to the strict equality rule for congressional districts), but with a substantial share supporting the “federal model” allowing for county representation in one house of a legislature.