A Closer Look at the UW Voter ID Survey

While One Wisconsin Now and the New York Times are claiming that Wisconsin’s Voter ID law has “deterred” thousands of voters from voting in the 2016 election, there are many more factors that are at play which they both  avoid. A closer look at a study of registered voters conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Kenneth Mayer exposes flaws, and lacks evidence to support his claim that this could have “flipped” the 2016 election.

The study, conducted by UW-Madison professor Kenneth R. Mayer, estimated that 11% of voters from from Dane and Milwaukee county didn’t vote in the 2016 election because of Wisconsin’s Voter ID law. This study is now being pointed at by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now as supporting evidence that the Voter ID law gives an “unfair partisan advantage,” with other’s claiming that this could’ve impacted the outcome of the 2016 election.

Looking at the actual study shows a few flaws that should be considered when reviewed, such as the small sample size and margin of error. In a question and answer session with Mayer about the study, he reported that the sample size for the study only consisted of 293 people. While Mayer claims that the sample size is large enough to generate an accurate estimate, he also mentioned that the margin of error, “is about plus or minus 3-4%.”  While his study claims that about 11% of eligible voters didn’t vote because of the voter ID law, taking in consideration the margin of error and the small sample size should convey that this is only an estimate that isn’t 100% accurate.

Also notable is that this survey was only conducted in Dane and Milwaukee counties, and therefore not reflective of the state as a whole.  Mayer acknowledged this:

The 11.2% figure cannot be directly extrapolated statewide, because we do not know how people outside of Dane or Milwaukee Counties would have answered the questions about their reasons for nonvoting or whether or not they possess a qualifying form of photo ID. The statewide totals outside of Dane and Milwaukee are certain to be greater than zero, but we cannot assume that the effect was the same, 11.2%.

The New York Times mischaracterized Wisconsin’s Voter ID law in an article about study, pointing out that it requires “uncommon documents” as a form of ID, although the documents they wrote about are only necessary if voters don’t have common identification like a driver’s licence or passport. The full list of acceptable ID’s can be easily found at elections.wi.gov, and few qualify as “uncommon”:

  • A State of Wisconsin Driver License, even if driving privileges are revoked or suspended.
  • A State of Wisconsin Identification Card (ID)
  •  Military ID card issued by the U.S. Uniformed Services
  •  A U.S. passport book or card
  •  A certificate of naturalization (that was issued no earlier than two years prior to the election)
  • An identification card issued by a federally recognized Indian tribe in Wisconsin o A driver license or state ID card receipt issued by Wisconsin DOT (valid for 45 days)
  • A photo identification card issued by a Wisconsin accredited university, college, or technical college that contains the following: -Date the card was issued -Signature of student -Expiration date no later than two years after date of issuance – The university or college ID must be accompanied by a separate document that proves enrollment, such as a tuition fee receipt, enrollment verification letter, or class schedule


Rather than not being able to vote because voters didn’t have proper identification, CJ Szafir, Vice President of Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, found that the study reported that that majority of participants didn’t vote because of their dissatisfaction with the candidates, rather than having problems with the Voter ID law:

The main reason cited by those who did not vote is that they were for “unhappy with choice of candidates or issues” (33% chose this). After that, other reasons for not voting include being ill, out of town, not interested, otherwise occupied or believing that their vote did not matter. Only 1.7% respondents believed that they did not have an adequate photo ID and 1.4% claimed to have been turned away at the polling place (which might have been related to ID). Put another way, the main reason for not voting cited by somewhere between 95% and 98% of the respondents was unrelated to the Voter ID law.


Mayer also noted that confusion about the Voter ID Law seemed to be a another reason that people didn’t vote. Rather than law being unfair, the population who didn’t vote may not have been aware of the law. Mayer said in the Q and A:

Previous research has demonstrated that many voters are confused by Voter ID laws. Some people who don’t possess the right ID may not realize it and give another reason for not voting, and some people who do might mistakenly think that their ID doesn’t qualify (because, for example, they incorrectly believe that their drivers license must show their current address for them to use it to vote). About a third of the respondents said they had not seen information about the voter ID requirements during the campaign.


While democrats likely will cling to this study as proof of republicans intent to “deter” voters, looking at the study closer shows that there are too many holes for it to concretely say that the Voter ID law was at fault, and even less about how this could have changed the outcome of the 2016 election.