There's a Debate over Voter Suppression's Role in Presidential Election.

November 10th 2016

Mike Rothschild

As the final votes are counted in the 2016 election, it's become clear that the turnout for Sec. of State Hillary Clinton fell far short the robust numbers enjoyed by President Barack Obama during his two successful campaigns.

In 2008, Obama won 69.5 million votes, with John McCain getting 59.9. In 2016, Clinton lost with 60 million votes, yet Trump won the election with just 59.7, thanks to the electoral college system.

The reasons for this crash in Democratic turnout have been listed as everything from the weight of 30 years of scandals — both real and imagined — to a lack of outreach to minority voters, to simple apathy and a feeling that individual votes don't matter.

Another factor being used to help explain low turnout and close margins in swing states is voter suppression.

In the years since President Barack Obama's first electoral victory, Republican governors and legislatures have passed a host of laws ostensibly meant to curb fraudulent voting. These laws make it harder to vote, restrict early voting, force voters to carry photo ID, make registration more cumbersome, and purge people from voter rolls for minor technicalities.

However, most civil rights advocates see these laws as a solution in search of a problem. An often cited study by Loyola Law School, Los Angeles professor Justin Levitt found just 31 legitimate instances of voter fraud among the more than 1 billion votes cast between 2000 and 2014.

It's important to note that while restrictive laws might have cost Hillary Clinton individual votes, the extent to which they hurt her overall is greatly in dispute. With Democratic turnout so low across the board, they likely made no difference in states she lost by wide margins. And several states that repealed restrictive voter ID laws or enacted online registration, including Minnesota and North Carolina, also saw drops in Democratic voting and went to Trump.

No matter how much voter suppression went on, and nobody knows how much did, it doesn't explain the drastic drop in Democratic votes from 2012 to 2016.

However, it's noteworthy that several of the states with the most restrictive voting laws are also those she lost by the slimmest of margins. Wisconsin and Florida have been particularly singled out for their restrictive voting laws, and represent several of President-elect Trump's closest victories.

In a twist of fate that underscores the importance of voter turnout, both are states that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012, but who elected Republican governors during the 2010 midterms. This was an election with Democratic turnout so low that it flipped both the House and Senate to Republicans, and handed the GOP a number of high profile governorships.

The Democrat who lost to Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2010 got 600,000 fewer votes than Obama in 2008. Walker then introduced a host of voter suppression laws, including among the most restrictive voter ID requirements in the nation by the ACLU.

And in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's opponent in the 2010 race received 2.557 million votes, losing by one percentage point in a state where President Obama won with almost 4.3 million votes. Florida went on to purge minority voters and those who had moved, limit early voting, and curtail registration activities by civic groups.

The low turnout in these midterm races is directly responsible for governors who signed laws making harder to vote. Whether these laws, in turn, hurt turnout in 2016, isn't known — and might never be known. Turnout fell for a host of reasons. But if turnout in 2010 had matched 2008, these governors likely would not have been elected, just as Donald Trump's presidential victory seems largely a product of low Democratic turnout.