Hillary Clinton has suggested she’d be president today were it not for restrictions on voting in place in last year’s election. The truth is probably more complicated.
In an interview with New York magazine, Clinton was asked about the performance of her campaign team, which has come in for criticism since her shock loss last November.
“What I was doing was working,” Clinton responded. “I would have won had I not been subjected to the unprecedented attacks by Comey and the Russians, aided and abetted by the suppression of the vote, particularly in Wisconsin.”
Clinton’s identification of Comey, the Russians, and voter suppression as making up the trifecta of factors that doomed her presidential bid is in sync with the views of many Democrats. But a closer look at the impact of voting restrictions suggests a murkier picture.
The short version: It’s impossible to say whether they were to blame for her loss. And it depends what we mean by voter suppression.
Let’s take Wisconsin first, since Clinton herself singled it out. One study found that the state’s strict voter ID law reduced turnout by 200,000 mostly Democratic votes — far more than the 27,000 she lost by. That study, which was conducted by a Democratic group, has been criticized by some independent experts, though it’s broadly in line with a 2014 government study which found that voter ID laws in Tennessee and Kansas reduced turnout by 2 percent and hit Democratic-leaning groups hardest. The 200,000-vote finding may or may not have been overstated, but the top (Democratic) elections official for Milwaukee, which saw 41,000 fewer voters than in 2012, said the ID law hurt turnout there. Throw in several other less-publicized voting restrictions in the state, including cuts to early voting and restrictions on registration, and it’s certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that Clinton would have won Wisconsin had the rules not been tightened.
But of course, to win the presidency she’d have needed not just Wisconsin but also, among the very close states, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Were restrictions on voting responsible for her losses in those states, too?
Michigan was even closer than Wisconsin—Clinton lost it by under 11,000 votes. There were no significant new formal voting restrictions in force there last year compared to 2012, when President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by nearly ten points. But there were widespread reports of voting problems in heavily Democratic Detroit on Election Day, thanks to malfunctioning machines. How many people were kept or deterred from the polls as a result is impossible to say, but the chaos could well have cost Clinton 11,000 votes.
As for Pennsylvania, which Clinton lost by about 44,000 votes, there were scattered reports of poll workers improperly asking for ID. But it appears to have been no harder to vote there than in 2012, when Obama beat Romney by over 5 percentage points. In fact, it was probably a bit easier, because a voter ID law that was blocked by the courts in the months before the 2012 contest may nonetheless have caused confusion that year.
Some Democrats also point to North Carolina. That state’s multi-pronged voting law was mostly blocked ahead of the election, but Republicans still did all they could to restrict the early voting schedule, and black turnout ultimately declined by 69,000 votes from 2012. And the voting law might still have caused confusion among some would-be voters who may have wrongly believed it to still be in force. Still, it’s probably a stretch to believe those factors cost Clinton 172,000 votes, the number she lost by. And remember: North Carolina, even along with Wisconsin, wouldn’t have been enough for Clinton anyway.
So if we’re talking about actual new restrictive laws or policies enacted in specific states, the evidence to say they were responsible for Clinton’s loss is probably lacking.
Still, it’s worth thinking of voter suppression not just as a set of recent GOP-backed laws like voter ID and others, but also as a much larger and longer-standing system that, intentionally or not, makes registering and voting harder for certain groups than for others. In 2012, long lines at the polls cost between 500,000 and 700,000 votes nationwide, and racial minorities faced significantly longer wait times than whites, one reputable study found. The voter registration system itself was developed as a way to keep marginalized groups out of the process, and some commentators still celebrate it for doing so. There were 868 fewer polling places last year compared to 2012 in areas previously covered under the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance regime, which the Supreme Court neutered in 2013. And there’s strong evidence that non-voting and non-registered Americans have more liberal views, and in other ways are closer to the profile of Democratic voters, than are voting Americans.
If we widen our lens in this way, it’s still impossible to say exactly who “should” have won any given election. But it’s clear that a system designed to make voting as easy as possible for every American would in general give us very different results, and very different politics.
Of course, none of this has any bearing on the “debate” over laws like voter ID. We know for a fact that such laws in their usual form stop or deter far more eligible voters than ineligible ones, and that’s the only thing that matters. Whether or not they determined the occupant of the White House is, in this sense, a side issue.
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