As Voter ID Laws Expand, Fewer People Are Getting Driver's Licenses

License applications have been dropping since 1983. That bad for voters who live in states with ID laws.

Image REUTERS/Chris Keane
REUTERS/Chris Keane

A North Carolina law requiring people to have certain kinds of photo identification in order to vote is on trial this week, in a federal courthouse in Winston-Salem. The state passed a voting law in 2013 that even some conservatives have called one of the most restrictive in the nation in terms of the potential burdening effect it could have on women and people of color. The voter ID provision is one part of a broader set of measures included in that law that, among other things, shortens the early voting period and eliminates Election Day voter registration.

Those other measures were taken up in a separate federal trial last summer, with a decision currently pending. This week, the voter ID provision is on trial, with the North Carolina state chapter of the NAACP arguing that it will make it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote, especially when combined with the law’s other restrictions. African-American registered voters are far less likely to have driver’s licenses than white voters.

Meanwhile, driver’s licenses are also becoming less of a priority for people in general. A report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute released earlier this month finds a “continuous decrease” in the proportion of Americans ages 16 to 44 with a driver’s license from 1983 and 2014. For those between the ages of 45 and 69, their share of people with licenses increased between 1983 and 2008, but have dropped steadily ever since, as seen in the graph below.

(Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)

It seems that people just don’t need driver’s licenses as much these days, and find it a hassle to get them. When Transportation Research Institute researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle explored reasons for these declining rates for a 2013 study, “Too busy or not enough time to get a driver’s license,” was the top answer for respondents who did not have them. The rest of the responses suggested that people are less often using the kind of transportation they would need a license for:

(Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak,
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Ann Arbor, Michigan)

State legislators are a bit out of alignment with Americans’ priorities and daily habits. The National Conference of State Legislatures shows that there are nine states that have photo ID laws that it considers strict, meaning that those states will only accept certain IDs to vote. (A driver’s license is the primary form of acceptable ID in each of those states.) There are states that have voter ID laws that went into effect this year—among them is Alabama, which is facing a lawsuit over its law. Texas’s voter ID law was ruled unenforceable under the Civil Rights Act by a federal judge last year. Meanwhile, other states including Missouri are hoping to pass voter ID bills, and will be looking to the outcome of this trial to see whether such laws are constitutional.

They may want to look at the data, however, to see if these requirements comport with how people transact their regular lives. Sivak’s and Schoettle’s research found that 22 percent of their respondents said they never plan on getting a driver’s license. Driving rates among young people in major cities, including Charlotte, are steadily dropping. More people are working from home and online, and rely on bikes, bike shares, car shares, or ride-hailing services like Uber, so a license is a luxury. But strict voter ID laws in states including North Carolina are making that luxury a necessity if you want to vote.

The few other forms of photo ID that are acceptable for voting purposes in North Carolina—passports, military/veteran IDs, tribal enrollment cards—are still limited in what populations they will help. The kind of IDs minorities could better access were struck from the law’s list of eligible documentation.  

“Each of the forms of photo identification that the legislature eliminated as acceptable ID … were more accessible to African Americans than White voters, including student IDs, government employee IDs, public assistance IDs and expired IDs,” said Michael Glick, attorney for the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, in a press statement. Glick’s firm is representing the NAACP in the trial. “Moreover, the forms of ID remaining legal under the law are disproportionately held by White voters.”

Sensing that the law might not pass muster, North Carolina legislators added a last-second amendment last summer, giving people a pass on showing ID if they can prove that they had no way of getting one. But the law’s challengers are now arguing that the switch comes too close to upcoming elections for people to understand and comply. When Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was challenged in court in 2012, the state also tried to make last-second fixes as elections approached. A judge ruled that those late changes would only befuddle voters and ultimately declared the law a violation of state constitutionally protected voting rights.

“We are trying to fix a botched surgery,” said  Rev. William J. Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, in a press statement. “There is too much confusion. We believe the right to vote should be constitutional—not confusing.”

About the Author

  • Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.