If you are registered to vote and have a voter ID, then voter ID laws don't directly affect you; but they do affect millions of Americans. Shane Gilbert '16 wants to know whether these laws, which have proliferated in recent years, impact voter turnout.
Working with MacArthur Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew O'Geen this summer as part of the Davidson Research Initiative (DRI), Gilbert investigated voter ID laws as a national trend, with the goal of establishing their impact on voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections.
"Although approximately 90 percent of the population has some form of personal identification, there are still many who find the task of proving their identity daunting due to a lack of money, documentation or time," he explained. "So I feel like it's necessary to explore this controversial legislation further."
Gilbert studied arguments both for and against voter ID laws. Supporters of the laws say they are concerned about voter fraud, while opponents say the laws will result in decreased voter turnout, especially among minorities.
"Research is inconclusive as to whether the laws decrease voter turnout," he explained. "It's interesting that a lot of the laws come about from the idea of protecting elections, but there isn't much evidence of fraud. For example, in 2012, there were roughly 4.5 million votes cast in North Carolina and 765 potentially fraudulent votes. I didn't realize how minimal voter fraud was until I started the research."
Gilbert has long been interested in voter turnout and voting rights. He wants to understand why people don't vote if they are able to, and what happens to those who want to vote but are legally barred.
"I've been following politics since a very young age," he said. "My parents have been very engaged in the community, so it was natural for me. I knew coming into college that I would major in political science."
During the spring of his sophomore year, Gilbert served as a research assistant for O'Geen and took a seminar with him on the Supreme Court. He wrote his final paper on the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which determined that the preclearance part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Following that decision, states could change their voting laws, including voter ID laws.
The laws went into effect for the first time in 2014, which is where Gilbert began his research.
"We narrowed our focus to the four states that were previously covered under the act-Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia-which all filed strict laws," he said.
Based on the data currently available, his findings concur with recent scholarship on the subject. However, voter turnout numbers for the 2014 mid-term election will be a major indicator of the impact of the voter ID laws; and that information will become available this fall.
Gilbert predicts that lip service will be paid to voter ID laws during the 2016 election season, but he hesitates to speculate on how the rhetoric will affect the election.
"There's a history of people being rejected without IDs, but we can't say that it's happening on a large scale yet. It could be a point of tension at any stage in the process," he said.
While DRI projects are typically completed over the summer, Gilbert plans to continue his research into the fall semester and possibly use it as part of his thesis. He also will spend a second semester as a research assistant for O'Geen.
"I really enjoy that research allows you to specialize in an area, and that you can thoroughly explore your topic," he said. "It's an organic process-you read the literature and collaborate with your classmates and professor to solve a puzzle, and it's a challenge to determine how the pieces fit together."
Before arriving at Davidson, he was aware that faculty/student collaboration was a hallmark of the college, but he didn't know about the DRI or the potential to be a research assistant.
"It's incredible," he said. "How many places in the United States provide the opportunity to work with professors at this level as an undergraduate? I feel extremely fortunate and humbled."