After Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton last week, the question of who is to blame for a win so few saw coming has been the subject of heated debate. White women, the media, low-income, low-propensity voters and those who voted for third-party candidates have all been mooted as being the cause of Clinton’s loss.
Of course, no single group’s actions alone can account for the result. But to the above list, we must also add another segment of society who did not turn out for Clinton and whose vote, if secured, might have made a difference – those barred from voting.
In 2013, after President Barack Obama’s second election victory, the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act, allowing nine states – mostly in the South – to change their election laws without federal approval.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a historic piece of legislation, designed to overcome the legal barriers put up by states in a bid to prevent African Americans from voting in the era of segregation.
It seems old habits die hard. After the 2013 ruling, Texas immediately pushed for new, tough voter ID rules. Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina also quickly sought to revive legislation that had failed to receive pre-clearance from congress. (A full list of voting restrictions in place for the first time in 2016 is available at the Brennan Center website.)
Yet as the United States neared polling day, the media – and candidates – seemingly had little to say about voter restriction.
As Ari Berman, who has done much to bring this story to the attention of the global press, noted over at The Nation: “There were 25 debates during the presidential primaries and general election and not a single question about the attack on voting rights”.
She also recounts meeting several voters in Wisconsin who were unable to vote because their drivers licenses were expired, or issued by a different state to the one in which they were registered to vote.
Less shocking, but easier to quantify, is the closure of polling stations. This year, there was an especially notable decrease in polling places in states with a history of voter discrimination: places like Arizona, Texas and North Carolina.
Joan Wash, also at The Nation, was able to show that this had a particular affect on black voters in North Carolina, with laws that might appear to be specifically created to curtail voter access in counties with a large black population:
In 40 heavily black counties, there were 158 fewer early polling places for the all-important first week of voting; Guilford County had 16 early voting places in 2012; this year it had only one. Early voting places were also eliminated at the state’s many historically black colleges and universities. County officials shut down Sunday voting to block the traditional “Souls to the Polls” movement in black churches. In that first week of early voting, black turnout cratered, compared to 2012.
Campaigns rallied, and by the end of early voting black votes were down 8.5 per cent percent – a fact the local Republican party nevertheless included in a jubilant press release, under the subheading “North Carolina Obama Coalition Crumbling”.
But on the day itself, voter suppression appeared to have an impact across America. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the New York Daily News reported, new, stricter ID laws correlated with decreased turnout.
In Wisconsin, where Trump’s margin of victory was around 30,000, these laws saw roughly 200,000 less people cast their vote.
The numbers are less stark in Ohio, where Trump won by 400,000 votes – but the 50,000 fewer Ohio citizens eligible to vote in this election did include, as the Daily News puts it, “drops in places such as Cleveland’s heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County”.
According to The Sentencing Project, an organization dedicated to justice reform, a record number of citizens were barred from voting this year.
In a report released after the election, they note that around 2.5 per cent of the US population is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction, adding that “felony disenfranchisement provisions have an outsized impact on communities of colour” – something which will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the American justice system. In fact, 23 states have disenfranchised at least 5 per cent of their African-American adult citizens.
As PBS put it,
Hillary Clinton lost by a margin smaller than those banned from voting — many of whom are poor or black or both, which are groups that tend to vote Democrat.
In Florida, around 21 per cent of adult black voters are disenfranchised – more than any other state. Its disenfranchisement of citizens post-sentence meant nearly 500,000 African American citizens were barred from voting due to a current or previous felony conviction. Trump won the state, and its hefty 29 electoral college votes, by less than 200,000 votes.
This in itself is significant. As PBS also remind us, the electoral college is not necessarily a “neutral” system – much as we might like to imagine that bias cannot be built in to electoral processes.
Rather, the system, once again controversial after Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election, was introduced in 1787 by James Madison, who noted that black voters in the South “presented a ‘difficulty . . . of a serious nature’”. In the words of Juan Perea, professor of law at Layola University in Chicago,
To the extent that people are surprised by this result, it is because liberal whites have underestimated the past and continuing importance of racism and sexism as founding principles of the country.
David Goodman, brother of murdered Civil Rights activist Andrew Goodman, has also highlighted the racist element of voter restriction, saying:
Today, rather than using murder, unscrupulous people have found new disenfranchisement tactics to prevent whole communities from voting in order to retain political advantage.
With the vote between Clinton and Trump so close, voter rights could turn out to be one of the most important, but initially least covered, stories of the 2016 election.