2013 General AssemblyArkansas LegislatureVoter ID

David Johnson: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

David Johnson
Senator David Johnson, intently studying AAI’s latest policy brief.

I have always admired Senator David Johnson. He and I rarely agree, but he is an uncommonly smart and honest legislator. When I watched the Senate debate voter ID yesterday, I was pleased to see that he was reading AAI’s most recent paper before he spoke and that he referenced it in his remarks. But I was sorry to see that the arguments he made against voter ID yesterday were startling in their unseriousness.

AAI’s latest paper undercuts the idea that requiring an ID suppresses the vote; in fact, what has happened in several states is that a voter ID requirement is apparently associated with a significant increase in voter turnout. But Senator Johnson, in the course of criticizing our paper on the Senate floor yesterday, explained that we should “take issue with those numbers,” and the reason he gave is interesting – if more than a little depressing.

Johnson explained that we needed to discount the election statistics that AAI produced because a lot of stuff happens in the real world, it’s difficult to figure out what causes what, and “there is no way to measure all those factors.” As I understand it, Johnson’s argument is that it’s a waste of time to pay attention to facts and numbers and statistics from the outside world; after all, so the argument goes, the outside world is just too mysterious for us to look at and draw intelligent conclusions therefrom. Instead of looking at the outside world, “what we have to do is use our common sense” to figure out the way the world works. And, according to Senator Johnson, our common sense should tell us that, as a general matter, if we create any additional duties for voters at all, “we will see a decrease in the number of people who vote.”

Well, if science tells us anything, it tells us that sometimes our common sense is wrong. Sometimes we’re going to draw more intelligent conclusions if we look directly at the outside world – in a controlled, disciplined fashion, of course – than if we just sit around and talk about the way we think that the world must be.

This isn’t merely an abstract or theoretical point. Common sense is a demonstrably terrible guide to predicting voter behavior. A few years ago, Curtis Gans – arguably the foremost expert on voter turnout in the United States – told me that his study of early voting statistics had led him to a startling conclusion: that establishing or extending early voting actually decreases voter turnout. That is, although common sense might tell us that expanding the days when people can vote will lead to higher voter turnout, common sense is wrong.

In the classic film farce Duck Soup, one of the Marx Brothers asks an associate: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” When we get to the point that we’re arguing against looking at the evidence that the world presents to our eyes, something has gone very wrong.

The debate over voter ID has been fascinating for me to watch (and, occasionally, to participate in). What it shows is that there are plenty of people who want to believe in certain things very badly, even when there is very little reason to. (Compare Senator Uvalde Lindsey’s now-immortal quip that requiring voter ID “seems like a solution chasing a problem that doesn’t exist,” which fortuitously appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the very same day that then-Rep. Hudson Hallum pled guilty to conspiracy to commit vote fraud.) While I understand that it’s pleasant or fun to have certain political opinions, we’d all be better off if we tried harder to make sure that our political opinions have a foothold in reality. Or else, as this disquieting clip from A Guide for the Married Man demonstrates, very bad things can happen.

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