An “Epidemic” of Voter Suppression
Experts say it's a massive problem in the state and may have swung election nationally.
Molly McGrath is a Madison-based staff member with the national group VoteRiders, which helps people struggling with new state voting restrictions. Over the last year she worked full time every day on that problem in Wisconsin, answering questions from people who lack the proper credentials or are confused by the new rules.
“I have talked to voters all over the state–Beloit to Superior, Cameron, Marshfield, Neenah, St. Croix Falls, Kenosha, Plymouth–and everywhere in between,” she says. “We have a help line where we get calls every day.”
And how bad is the problem of voter suppression?
“I would say it’s an epidemic in Wisconsin.”
Madison had a high turnout for the presidential election. Even so, McGrath says, “there were a significant number of people who didn’t vote because of this. If you make something harder to do less people are going to do it.”
Given that Republican Donald Trump won the state by just 27,000 votes, that 43,000 margin by itself made the difference.
Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, told the Journal Sentinel the greatest declines were “in the districts we projected would have the the most trouble with ID requirements.” That included four districts in the city with the most “transient, high poverty” residents struggling to meet the photo ID requirements. “We had a lot of calls” about such problems, he added.
Milwaukee also has more than 50,000 students attending colleges and universities like UW-Milwaukee, Marquette and MSOE. And university students, says McGrath, often have drivers licenses from outside the state that can’t be used to vote without additional identification forms. Many, she says, are first time voters who can be confused about the new requirements.
Former Republican legislative aide Todd Allbaugh testified in federal court that Republicans lawmakers were “giddy” about the Voter ID law and its likely impact on elections. As he recalled, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) said “Hey, we’ve got to think about what this would mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses.” Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman predicted that Photo ID could swing the presidential election to his party.
As McGrath puts it, “I think it’s more than coincidence that in areas legislators were targeting, like low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee, we’ve seen a decrease in turnout.”
The problem of voters confused by the rules, she says, was compounded by inaccurate information being provided by state Division of Motor Vehicle staff. VoteRiders provided audios of misleading statements by DMV workers to federal court, and state officials later admitted workers were giving out inaccurate information.
Tom Evenson, spokesperson for Gov. Scott Walker, has denied that voter restrictions are a problem, pointing to the high turnout for the spring presidential primary. But it’s always the fall presidential primary that gets the highest turnout, and this year’s had the lowest in 20 years, since the low-interest Bill Clinton–Bob Dole race.
“Voter suppression is alive and well in Wisconsin,” says McGrath, “and for elected officials to say this didn’t have an impact is a lie to the people they serve.”
Kathleen Unger, President and CEO of VoteRiders, says her group gets calls from virtually every state regarding people facing barriers or confused about voting. “There are two ways voter restrictions have an impact: those who try to vote and don’t have valid ID. And an equal or larger number who are so confused and intimidated by Voter ID that they don’t vote.”
A 2014 study by the non-partisan federal Government Accountability Office compared voter turnout in Kansas and Tennessee to turnout in the four states that did not have changes in their voter ID requirements from the 2008 to 2012 general elections, and found that turnout was reduced by an estimated 1.9 to 2.2 percentage points in Kansas and 2.2 to 3.2 percentage points in Tennessee. A study of one Texas congressional district in 2014 found that of some 271,000 registered voters who didn’t vote, 12.8 percent said it was because they thought they lacked the needed credentials under the new law. That’s more than 34,000 people.
A study by Daniel Smith, an elections scholar at the University of Florida, compared the turnout of Florida voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Between those elections, Florida’s Legislature cut six days from the state’s 14-day early-voting period, including the final Sunday. He found that “one in four Latinos who voted on the final Sunday in ’08 didn’t vote at all in ’12.”
His group issued a report finding that 43 percent of counties that had previously been covered by the federal Voting Rights Act reduced their number of voting locations, resulting in 868 fewer sites in those jurisdictions with histories of discriminatory voting practices and predominantly nonwhite and poor voters.
If voter suppression is shaving off one to two percent of the vote, that could have been decisive in enough states to give Trump, the popular vote loser, the edge in the electoral college. Those states include:
-Michigan, which has Voter ID and Trump has won Michigan less by 13,107 votes out of 4,785,223 votes cast, or less than three tenths of one percent. 16 electoral votes.
-Wisconsin, Trump won by 27,000 votes or 1 percent. 10 electoral votes.
-Florida, Trump won by 120,000 votes or 1.3 percent. 29 electoral votes.
Winning these states would give Hillary Clinton the majority (287) of electoral votes. She has won the popular vote by more then one million votes.
Florida, besides requiring Photo ID, reducing early voting, and restricting voter registration drives, is one of just three states that permanently disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction. Felons have to travel to the state capital and request that the governor grant them clemency on an individual basis, as Think Progress has noted:
“That process has become even more difficult since Republican Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2011. During governor Charlie Crist’s four years in office, more than 150,000 people had their rights restored….But when Scott took office, the clemency board changed its rules and progress slowed to a crawl. In his first term as governor, fewer than 1,600 people have had their rights restored.”
Trump seems open to appointing Republicans who champion voter suppression. For his attorney general, he has considered appointing Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who agreed to add nearly 20,000 properly registered voters to the state’s rolls only after being threatened with contempt of court. Trump’s chief of staff is Wisconsinite Reince Priebus, who has charged that this state is “riddled” with voter fraud, estimating that up to 2 percent of all votes in Wisconsin are fraudulent. In the 2012 presidential election, that would have meant more than 61,000 votes were cast illegally.
Priebus offered no evidence whatsoever to back up this astonishing claim, but a GAO study analyzed voter fraud statistics across the U.S. and found that in the 10 year period between 2004 and 2014, exactly zero cases of voter impersonation were charged, let alone tried. Another study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt examined every claim of voter fraud nationally since 2000, and found just 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of one billion votes cast.
“It would appear that a Trump administration will be more supportive of Voter ID laws and this is likely to be an increasing challenge for voters,” says Unger.
After all, Trump might not have won without voter suppression.