Wisconsin Shows How To Do Voter Suppression Right

Ari Berman has a big piece in our current issue about the effect of Wisconsin’s persistent campaign to suppress the black vote. Because I am the kind of person I am, I’m going to skip the personal anecdotes and go straight to the numbers:

The state, which ranked second in the nation in voter participation in 2008 and 2012, saw its lowest turnout since 2000….Turnout fell only slightly in white middle-class areas of the city but plunged in black ones.

….The impact of Wisconsin’s voter ID law received almost no attention….After the election, registered voters in Milwaukee County and Madison’s Dane County were surveyed about why they didn’t cast a ballot. Eleven percent cited the voter ID law and said they didn’t have an acceptable ID.

….In Wisconsin, the intent of those who pushed for the ID law was clear. On the night of Wisconsin’s 2016 primary, GOP Rep. Glenn Grothman, a backer of the law when he was in the state Senate, predicted that a Republican would carry the state in November, even though Wisconsin had gone for Barack Obama by 7 points in 2012. “I think Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up,” he told a local TV news reporter, “and now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well.”

Why does photo ID make a difference? Because blacks and other minorities lack them in larger numbers than whites. If you require photo ID to vote, you put a bigger hurdle in place for blacks, and that naturally suppresses the black vote. Republicans are keenly aware of this, and after the 2004 election that prompted them to begin a nationwide campaign to require photo ID to vote. You can read all about that campaign in my 2012 piece, “The Dog That Voted.”

[This section deleted. See update 2 for details]

But this isn’t the only reason that black turnout was down disproportionately. It was also because Wisconsin made sure to go above and beyond in enforcing it illegally. Molly McGrath, the head of voter outreach for the Wisconsin ACLU, saw this firsthand:

She had secretly recorded the DMV employees to show that the state was not complying with a court order to distribute voter IDs within a week to people…who did not have access to their birth certificates or other required documents.

A few weeks earlier, US District Judge James Peterson, who oversaw the implementation of the voter ID law, had found that Wisconsin’s process for issuing IDs was a “wretched failure” that “has disenfranchised a number of citizens who are unquestionably qualified to vote.” Eighty-five percent of those denied IDs by the DMV were black or Latino, he noted in his ruling.

….Wisconsin assured the court that such a safety net was in place….The month prior, the Wisconsin Elections Commission had issued a similar release titled “Free Photo ID for Voting Now Available With One Trip to DMV.”

But McGrath was skeptical. She enlisted her parents, who visited 11 DMVs across the state over the next two weeks to test what would happen to voters like Moore who did not have a birth certificate and wanted to get an ID. In recordings of those encounters, DMV workers said it would “take quite a while” to get the credentials needed to vote, and that it was “hard to predict” when that would be. Only 3 of the 11 DMVs confirmed they would issue a voter ID in a week or less, as the court had ordered.

The lesson of Wisconsin is pretty simple: Voter suppression can work if (a) an election is close and (b) you’re really dedicated to making it work. Both of these things happened in Wisconsin in 2016, and Hillary Clinton lost the state.

UPDATE: A couple of notes. First, Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project says the chart above is flawed. It comes from a Brookings report based on Census data, but it turns out there may be some problems with the Census numbers. I’ve reached out to the author of the Brookings article to see what he has to say about this.

In any case, please note that the chart is mine, not Ari Berman’s. His article stands or falls based on what he wrote, not on my commentary.

UPDATE 2: William Frey of Brookings tells me that he was using the Census figures “at face value.” For that reason, I’m inclined to accept McDonald’s criticism (here), and I’ve deleted the chart showing a huge drop in black turnout in Wisconsin. Most likely, black turnout was down disproportionately, but only by a few percentage points.


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