Voter Suppression Hurts Everyone
New research shows votes -- for both blacks and whites -- were suppressed in 2016.
From the beginning there were questions about the narrow victory for Donald Trump in Wisconsin, who defeated Hillary Clinton by just 22,748 votes out of more than 2.9 million ballots cast in the state. The November turnout in Wisconsin, 69.4 percent of eligible voters, was the lowest in a presidential election year since 2000 and a 41,000 vote decline in the City of Milwaukee vote in 2016 versus 2012 was a key part of that.
A recent feature story by Ari Berman in the magazine Mother Jones takes a hard look at Wisconsin and raises serious doubts about the fairness of the state’s 2016 election. The story comes on the heels of a study by UW-Madison political science professor Kenneth Mayer, who did a survey of voters in Milwaukee and Dane County and found that that 11.2 percent of the two counties’ 160,000 registered voters who didn’t cast ballots were deterred by the Wisconsin’s voter ID law. He estimates that as many as 23,252 voters and as few as 16,801 voters were deterred from voting.
“It’s certainly possible that there were enough voters deterred that it flipped the election,” Mayer told the New York Times.
Neil Albrecht, the City of Milwaukee’s election director, who tracks voting by wards, believes voter suppression may have delivered the election for Trump: “I would estimate that 25 to 35 percent of the 41,000 decrease in voters, or somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 voters, likely did not vote due to the photo ID requirement,” he has said. “It is very probable that… enough people were prevented from voting to have changed the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin.”
But there is simply no way to know for sure. Because the voter suppression that has occurred doesn’t just affect Democratic or minority or low income voters. Mayer estimated that 27.5 percent of African American registered voters were deterred from voting, but also found 8.3 percent of white registrants were deterred. Remarkably, even among high-income registrants (over $100,000 household income), 2.7 percent were deterred.
Mayer’s results echo a study of one Texas congressional district in 2014 which found a higher percentage of Latino voters than white voters were discouraged from voting by a photo ID law. So both minorities and whites are discouraged.
What both studies found was that most of those discouraged from voting actually had the proper ID but didn’t believe they did. The new Republican strategy, as I’ve previously written, is to create confusion and thereby reduce the turnout.
“There is massive confusion nationwide, on the part of voters and poll workers alike, about voter ID laws even where there is no state voter ID law,” Kathleen Unger, president of VoteRiders, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that disseminates accurate voting information nationwide, told the New York Times. “That may explain why during a recent election Myrna Pérez, who directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting rights and elections project, was herself told by a poll official at her New Jersey precinct that she needed a photo ID, even though the state lacks a photo ID law,” Leslie writes.
Berman notes another recent study, by MIT political scientist Charles Stewart, who estimated that 16 million people—12 percent of all voters—encountered at least one problem voting in 2016. There were more than one million lost votes, his report estimated, because people ran into things like ID laws, long lines at the polls, and difficulty registering.
Democrats are convinced these problems are more likely to reduce turnout of their supporters. As Berman reports: “A post-election study by Priorities USA, a Democratic super-PAC that supported Clinton, found that in 2016, turnout decreased by 1.7 percent in the three states that adopted stricter voter ID laws but increased by 1.3 percent in states where ID laws did not change. Wisconsin’s turnout dropped 3.3 percent,” by about 200,000 votes.
“Some academics criticized the study’s methodology,” Berman continues, “but its conclusions were consistent with a report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that strict voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee had decreased turnout by roughly 2 to 3 percent, with the largest drops among black, young, and new voters.”
Yet it isn’t just Democrats who believe the laws limiting access for voters have more impact on Democrats. Todd Allbaugh, who served for years as chief of staff for Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz, testified in federal court that State Sen. Mary Lazich urged her fellow Republican senators to enact a voter ID requirement in a closed-door meeting in 2011 because of its impact in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and the state’s college campuses, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Allbaugh also testified that Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman, then a state senator, said in the same meeting that he supported voter ID because it would help Republicans win elections. Grothman later predicted to the media that the new law would help the GOP win the 2016 election, which is exactly what happened.
But here’s the thing: while all the research suggests photo ID does have more impact on minority voters, it also shows some white and even well-to-do voters are discouraged from voting. Which suggests Republicans don’t mind discouraging some Republicans and conservatives from voting — so long as many more Democrats and liberals are discouraged.
The roster of people denied photo IDs in Wisconsin “bordered on the surreal,” Berman writes: ”a man born in a concentration camp in Germany who’d lost his birth certificate in a fire; a woman who’d lost use of her hands but was not permitted to grant her daughter power of attorney to sign the necessary documents; …a 90-year-old veteran of Iwo Jima who could not vote with his veteran’s ID.”
Berman tells the story of an African American woman in Milwaukee, Andrea Anthony, who had lost her driver’s license a few days earlier, but came to the polls prepared with an expired Wisconsin state ID and proof of residency. A poll worker confirmed she was registered to vote at her current address, but because Anthony didn’t have a current drivers license or state ID, she could only vote on a provisional ballot, which would be counted “only if she went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new ID and then to the city clerk’s office to confirm her vote, all within 72 hours of Election Day. But Anthony couldn’t take time off from her job as an administrative assistant at a housing management company, and she had five kids and two grandkids to look after.”
Given the history of African Americans, who through most of this country’s history were prevented from voting — for more a century because they were slaves, and for another century because of ruses like poll taxes — it is truly sickening to see how overly technical photo ID laws have created a new way to prevent them from voting, even when they can prove their identity.
But the biggest impact is not on zealous voters like Anthony, it is on average people, black, brown or white, who may be confused or scared by the photo ID law. That’s why the conservative Bradley Foundation helped fund billboards in Milwaukee warning that “Voter Fraud Is a Felony!” punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and fines of $10,000.
The reality is that this approach may also scare off some Republican voters, and the GOP is fine with that — so long as far more Democrats are discouraged. There have been 33 changes in elections laws under Gov. Scott Walker, Berman notes, and many make it harder to vote. We are in the midst of a cynical, un-democratic and un-American epidemic of voter suppression, and it’s the face of today’s Republican Party.
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