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Did Voter ID Hand Wisconsin to Trump?

Voting plummets in Milwaukee

Nov. 15, 2016
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Last Tuesday, Wisconsin did what seemed to be unthinkable: It went red during a presidential election. 

The pundits will debate endlessly about how Republican Donald Trump turned months of trailing in the polls into a victory on Election Day, but what’s worth examining is whether Wisconsin’s new voting laws had an impact on Tuesday’s results.

As The Nation’s Ari Berman pointed out, last week’s election was the first presidential contest conducted in 50 years without the full force of the Voting Rights Act, which the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted in 2013. Since then, Berman noted, 14 states—including Wisconsin—enacted new voting restrictions, such as voter ID. 

Wisconsin’s Republican-backed voter ID law, enacted in 2011 but blocked by the courts until this year, was one of the most stringent in the country and was widely seen as an attempt to disenfranchise up to 300,000 traditionally Democratic voters—primarily seniors, students, low-income residents and people of color.

Although a lawsuit filed by One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund recently forced the state to ease some of the law’s requirements, Berman wrote that he witnessed potential voters being turned away at Wisconsin polls last week, including an 85-year-old woman in Plymouth, because her driver’s license was expired and wasn’t accepted.

“How many people were turned away from the polls?,” Berman wrote. “How many others didn’t bother to show up in the first place? These are questions we need to take far more seriously.”

Analiese Eicher, program and development director for One Wisconsin Institute, said the voter ID law had an impact on voter turnout, although there’s no way to know definitively how many potential voters were deterred from going to the polls on Election Day because they didn’t have the proper ID.

“Voter ID laws, and the kinds of laws Republicans passed in Wisconsin in the last five years, are voter suppression laws,” Eicher told the Shepherd.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, was more blunt about the impact of the new voting requirements.

“The integrity of the election was really compromised,” he told the Shepherd.

Low Voter Turnout

If you looked at the polls, the signs of a Democratic victory seemed to be there. After all, Hillary Clinton had a blowout six-point lead in the most recent Marquette Law School poll and early voting turnout was historically high, with more than 828,451 ballots cast before Election Day, the majority of which were cast in traditionally Democratic counties.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission had predicted high turnout of 3.1 million voters overall, higher than the 3 million who voted in the 2012 presidential election. 

That prediction didn’t materialize. The unofficial results from the Associated Press show that 2.9 million Wisconsinites voted, 66.23% of the state’s voting population. That’s Wisconsin’s lowest voter participation rate in a presidential election since 1996, when Bill Clinton cruised to re-election against Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

When all the votes were counted, with 248,045 ballots cast the City of Milwaukee had 75% voter turnout—impressive, but less than its 87% turnout in 2012 (288,459 votes) and 80% in 2008 (275,042 votes), when President Obama was at the top of the ticket. In other words, post-voter ID, about 41,000 fewer Milwaukeeans showed up at the polls.

In the end, Wisconsin turned red as Trump won 48% to Clinton’s 47% of the vote, with just 27,257 votes separating them, about 14,000 fewer votes than the drop-off in Milwaukee. 

Milwaukee Turnout to be Studied

The election commission’s Albrecht is careful to note that a number of factors could have contributed to the low voter turnout in the city, including the candidates’ messages and activities.

That said, Albrecht said that the new voting laws—especially voter ID—could have contributed to the 12% decline in voter participation in the city. 

“What I’m encouraging is an examination of the changes to Wisconsin’s election laws in the last five years and how those affect people’s access to ballots and how those may have contributed toward the gap we are seeing in voter participation from 2012 to 2016 in the City of Milwaukee,” Albrecht said.

On Friday, Gov. Scott Walker told Charlie Sykes that voter ID’s potential impact on voter participation was “a load of crap.”

On Monday, the Journal Sentinel reported that UW-Madison researchers would look into the potential impact of voter ID on voter participation.

One bright spot was the city’s record-high early-voting statistics. Thanks to the suit that chipped away at voter ID, municipalities were able to expand early-voting hours as well as the number of voting locations. Milwaukee’s early voting soared. But not everyone had an acceptable ID to vote, Albrecht said.

“It really did demonstrate that the state’s photo ID public education campaign, which was so fractured, did not reach some of the most difficult-to-reach communities in Milwaukee,” Albrecht said. 

He said the requirements were especially onerous for the city’s disadvantaged residents, which he said “disheartened” him.

“Living in poverty shouldn’t cost you your right to vote,” Albrecht said. “And those are the voters who are left behind by the new requirements.”

While the city lost 12% of voters overall, the loss was even more significant in the neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income people of color. 

The 15th District, represented by Alderman Russell Stamper II, saw the steepest decline, with a 38% loss off votes from 2012 to 2016. Alderwoman Milele Coggs’ 6th District saw a 31% decline in voting; the 1st District, represented by Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, and the 7th District, represented by Alderman Khalif Rainey, both lost 29% of its voters; and the 2nd District, represented by Alderman Cavalier Johnson, declined 24%, according to Albrecht’s data. 

“We can’t ignore the fact that there was a lot of public concern with how these new requirements would affect these communities,” Albrecht said. “But the fact that it was ignored I really feel has compromised the integrity of the election.”

Wisconsin isn’t the only state to enact new voting restrictions, of course, with the alleged aim of combatting widespread voter fraud. 

“These laws were designed to abate something that was never proven, and that is this very undefined concept of widespread voter fraud,” Albrecht said. “Whether or not they were effective in addressing something that was never proven is pretty uncertain. But what is certain is that people were not able to vote because of these laws. That’s where I feel and I think a lot of the public feel that the integrity of the election was really compromised.” 

He said the loss of the full protections of the Voting Rights Act is being felt now, especially by African American voters. 

“There is a pattern,” Albrecht said. “As I said when the voter ID law was being examined, we are repeating history. We really are. That is the populations, the people of color, particularly African Americans who were protected by the Voting Rights Act, again are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised population in this presidential election.”


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