clock menu more-arrow no yes

Voter suppression didn’t cost Hillary Clinton the election

Voter suppression might explain Clinton’s loss in Wisconsin — but not Florida, Michigan, or Pennsylvania.

Hillary Clinton in New York. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Over the past few days, Hillary Clinton supporters have begun to develop theories for why their candidate lost the election against Donald Trump. One of the theories that’s increasingly popped up on social media is that Clinton lost due to voter suppression.

According to this view, Republicans passed a slew of new voting restrictions in several key swing states: North Carolina, Wisconsin, and so on. Along the way, courts and studies found — and some Republicans even admitted — that these restrictions would have a disproportionate impact on minority Americans who tend to vote Democrat. So isn’t that exactly what happened — minority voters weren’t able to get to the ballot box, costing Clinton just enough votes that she lost?

When you look at the actual election results, however, the answer is almost certainly no. For one, Clinton lost in must-win states that had no new voting restrictions. And she lost by such big margins in a few states with new voting restrictions that it’s unlikely that voter suppression alone can explain the results.

Voting restrictions are deplorable even if they don’t cost anyone an election. It shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to exercise their basic democratic right, and no one should be burdened by extra hurdles at the ballot box based on their race or political affiliation. One case of voter suppression is far too many.

But it wasn’t the reason Clinton lost.

Clinton lost in states that didn’t pass new voting restrictions

Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama campaign in Philadelphia. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The biggest knock on claims that voter suppression cost Clinton the election comes from Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. None of these states passed any new voting restrictions in time for 2016, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Yet Clinton lost by a fairly decent margin in Florida (by 1.3 percentage points) and Pennsylvania (by 1.2 percentage points), and appears to have narrowly lost in Michigan (by 0.3 points).

Things look even worse when you consider how many votes Clinton got compared to President Barack Obama in two of these states. In Pennsylvania, Clinton got 2 percent fewer votes than Obama did in 2012, while Trump got 11 percent more than Mitt Romney. In Michigan, Clinton got 11 percent fewer votes than Obama did in 2012, while Trump got 8 percent more than Mitt Romney. Clinton simply got fewer people to turn out for her than the last Democrat who ran, while Trump appeared to get more than the previous Republican.

Florida is an exception, since turnout increased there. But even then, Trump seemed to outperform Clinton in terms of turnout: Clinton got nearly 6 percent more votes than Obama did in 2012, while Trump got nearly 11 percent more than Romney.

Clinton had to win Pennsylvania and Michigan, especially if she lost Florida. The electoral math always looked essentially impossible if she lost all three of these states. And even though there were no new voting restrictions in any of them, she appears to have lost all three.

Clinton’s losses in states with new voting restrictions were too big for suppression to explain the results

An “I voted” sticker. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Okay, but what about the states that did pass new voting restrictions — like Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin? To evaluate that, we have to look at the research on voting restrictions, which suggests that these don’t have as big of an effect as you might think.

Wisconsin, which was the closest contest of these three states on Election Day, has the most compelling case. As Ari Berman wrote for the Nation, “27,000 votes currently separate Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin, where 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked strict forms of voter ID.”

So were 300,000 Clinton supporters really turned off from voting by the state’s voter ID law? Not quite. As Nate Cohn previously explained for the New York Times, chances are most of these people weren’t going to vote in the first place:

To begin with, the true number of registered voters without photo identification is usually much lower than the statistics on registered voters without identification suggest. The number of voters without photo identification is calculated by matching voter registration files with state ID databases. But perfect matching is impossible, and the effect is to overestimate the number of voters without identification. …

People without ID are less likely to vote than other registered voters. The North Carolina study found that 43 percent of the unmatched voters — registered voters who could not be matched with a driver’s license — participated in 2012, compared with more than 70 percent of matched voters.

Essentially, the number of voters who don’t actually have an eligible ID is very inflated by estimates like Wisconsin’s. And assuming that these people will vote in the first place is a big mistake — they’re less likely to vote, with or without a voter ID law.

Cohn added:

There’s no question that voter ID has a disparate impact on Democratic-leaning groups — those young, nonwhite, poor, immobile or elderly voters. The unmatched North Carolina voters were registered as Democrats by a 37-point margin, compared with the 12-point Democratic margin statewide. They were 46 percent nonwhite, compared with 29 percent of all registered voters.

But 22 percent of these voters were registered Republicans. The voters without an identification might be breaking something more like 70/30 for Democrats than 95/5.

As Cohn writes, a 70-30 skew is still a big loss for Democrats. But when taking into account that many of these people are unlikely to vote in the first place, the total count of lost voters is much smaller than one would think.

Studies looking into voter ID laws’ effect on voter turnout back this up. The research, including multiple studies conducted over several years, has generally found that voter ID laws have a small to no impact on voter turnout.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, concluded that a majority of studies it reviewed found no or even increased turnout after voter ID measures passed:

Of the 10 studies we reviewed, 5 found that state voter ID requirements had no statistically significant effects on voter turnout nationwide, and 5 studies found that changes in voter ID requirements had statistically significant effects on voter turnout. Among the 5 studies that showed statistically significant effects, 1 of the studies found an increase in voter turnout nationwide of 1.8 percentage points. The other 4 studies that showed statistically significant effects found that voter ID requirements decreased voter turnout, and the estimated decreases ranged from 1.5 to 3.9 percentage points.

If you average the results from these studies, it appears that voter ID reduced turnout by around 0 to 1 percentage points. And not all of this reduced turnout is Democrats — as Cohn noted, it’s probably safe to assume around 70 percent were.

In fact, none of the other voting restrictions enacted by states seem to have much of an effect on voting either. Researchers have found, for example, mixed effects on whether more early voting increases turnout, with one recent study finding that early voting actually decreased turnout on net if voters couldn’t register to vote and cast their ballot on the same day. And in terms of long lines due to polling place closures, other studies estimated that previous experiences with long lines decreased turnout by only a fraction of a percentage point in 2014 compared to 2012.

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at the swing states that had new voting restrictions in time for 2016: Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

In Ohio, lawmakers cut one week of early voting, keeping about four weeks of early voting in place. Clinton lost that state to Trump by 8.6 points — way more than one would expect a 0 to 1 percentage point decrease in turnout to cause.

In North Carolina, lawmakers cut voting sites for early voting and Election Day, but they never managed to implement broader restrictions they passed (including voter ID and early voting cuts) after a court struck those measures down. Clinton lost the state by 3.8 points — again, more than a 0 to 1 percentage point decrease in voter turnout would likely cause.

In Wisconsin, Clinton supporters again have the most compelling case. Clinton lost Wisconsin by 1 percentage point, which could definitely fall in the realm of reduced turnout from voting restrictions. But that’s only if you assume the maximum effect that voter suppression can have.

Plus, Clinton could have won Wisconsin and still lost the election. Once she lost Florida, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, it was over. There was no way she could make up for the Electoral College deficit.

These facts matter: If Clinton didn’t lose because of voter suppression, she obviously lost for other reasons. Figuring out those other reasons will be necessary if Democrats hope to prevent another shocking loss like Clinton’s in the future.


Watch: It’s now on America’s institutions — and Republicans— to check Donald Trump

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.