Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) squared off with voting rights restrictions enthusiast Hans von Spakovsky at at Senate hearing on Thursday, accusing the Heritage Foundation fellow of leaving out a crucial piece of data that undermined his argument that voter ID laws don’t suppress minority turnout.
In his written testimony, von Spakovsky said that the fact that Georgia had the highest voter turnout in its history in 2008 when there was a photo ID law on the books was proof that the measure didn’t suppress turnout. He compared Georgia’s statistics to neighboring Mississippi, a state which also has a significant African-American population.
“For example, Mississippi, a state with a large African-American population just like Georgia, there was only a third of what it was in Georgia,” von Spakovsky said during his testimony.
“Can I ask you something?” Franken interjected. “Do you know how much Mississippi grew in terms of black population during those years versus Georgia?”
“I don’t,” said von Spakovsky.
“Wouldn’t that have to factor into the significance of that?” Franken said. “Here’s my question: you did a study and you put in your testimony that it was ‘significant’ that the percentage of black voters grew more in Georgia than Mississippi and you just cited it again. I would think that, as someone who writes studies, it would be significant to know that the black population grew at more than four times the rate than the black population in Mississippi, and I’m wondering how you didn’t factor that in,” he said. (Franken later corrected himself to say that the black population in Georgia grew at more than three times the rate.)
Franken said that von Spakovsky left out a crucial piece of data.
“I think that’s creating an inference, and either you knew it or you didn’t know it, but I think you should have checked it out,” Franken said. He also suggested that false voter fraud allegations erode confidence in the voting system.
Franken wasn’t the only one taking shots an von Spakovsky. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who previously authored a report for the Brennan Center which found no evidence of a national problem of voter impersonation fraud, said von Spakovsky’s logic was flawed.
“There’s a basic — and I mean basic — misconception here,” Levitt said. “It’s called the correlation-causation fallacy, and anybody who’s had statistics for a week can talk to you about it.”
“Mr. von Spakovsky and I agree on one thing, that the turnout studies don’t show great impact, but that’s because they can’t,” Levitt said. “You can’t draw any real conclusions about that.”
“I’ll give you an example. Mr. von Spakovsky supports voter ID restrictions. I oppose them. Mr. von Spakovsky has no facial hair. I have facial hair. But certainly opposition to voter ID doesn’t cause facial hair,” he said.
He rejected the argument that since photo IDs were needed in many aspects of American life, it shouldn’t be a problem to make people show ID at the polls too.
“To get to you today, I had to board a plan from Los Angeles and never showed a photo ID. While waiting in the terminal, I drank a beer… I never showed ID,” Levitt said. “To testify before you today, I walked right into this federal building and never showed ID.”
“Boarding a plane is nice. Drinking beer is nice. But outside of prohibition, I don’t see that in the constitution,” Levitt said.
“We know that there are individuals who tried — and failed — to vote. Real people,” said Levitt, who cited examples of nuns in South Bend, Indiana and a veteran.
“I frankly think it shameful to conceive of even one veteran who has served our country who has watched brothers and sisters fight and die to preserve the right to vote turned away for no good reason,” Levitt said.
“They have the authority to review these state laws,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who chaired the hearing, told TPM, speaking of the Department of Justice. “We’ve passed the law, that is the law. I’ve talked to the Civil Rights Division and they’re going to consider those on a timely basis.”
Durbin said there’s no plan for the Senate to try to do anything about the state laws at this time.
“I don’t think we should do anything until the Voting Rights Act is followed, until the Justice Department reviews these state laws,” Durbin said.
[Ed. note: video added to post after publication.]