POLITICS
06/01/2017 05:06 pm ET

Hillary Clinton Partly Blames Voter Suppression For Her Loss, But Experts Aren't So Sure

They say Democrats have been talking up a flawed study.

Hillary Clinton has suggested in two recent interviews that voter suppression tactics, especially in Wisconsin, contributed to her losing the presidential election last year, a claim that several election law experts find questionable.

“I would have won had I not been subjected to the unprecedented attacks by [then-FBI Director James] Comey and the Russians, aided and abetted by the suppression of the vote, particularly in Wisconsin,” she said in an interview with New York magazine published last week. 

Experts agree that voter ID requirements make it more difficult to vote, especially for low-income, minority and elderly voters. And Wisconsin has a strict voter ID law that requires voters to show a driver’s license, state ID, passport, naturalization papers, tribal ID or certain student IDs. People who don’t have one of those items can cast a provisional ballot that only counts if they return shortly after Election Day to prove their eligibility to election officials.

A 2014 study by the General Accountability Office showed that new voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout in 2012, particularly among African-American and young voters in 2012. A judge in 2014 estimated that 300,000 people lacked the required documentation to vote. Clinton lost to Trump in Wisconsin by 22,748 votes.

Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, at the Women for Women International Lunch
Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, at the Women for Women International Luncheon on May 2. 

During an appearance at the 2017 Code Conference on Wednesday, Clinton defended not spending more time campaigning in Wisconsin, saying she had sent strong surrogates there and that her team had imperfect data on her chances in the state. She then pivoted to talk about voter suppression in the state.100

Scott Walker has been one of the leaders in voter suppression, making it difficult,” she said, referring to the governor of Wisconsin.

“So the 85-year-old woman who doesn’t have a photo ID because she doesn’t drive anymore shows up with her Medicare card and her utility bills and they turn her away,” Clinton added. “Or the African-American. Or the veteran, also African-American, who moves from Illinois to Wisconsin, registers to vote, gets on the rolls, but he still has his Illinois driver’s license, shows up, they turn him away. The best estimate is that 200,000 people in Wisconsin were either denied or chilled in their efforts to vote. I don’t think we believed at the time before the election that it would be anything like that, anything as big as that.”

Clinton appeared to be referring to an analysis by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. But experts have questioned the study, which was not peer-reviewed, and said it overestimates the impact of the voter ID law on the election.

It is pretty clear that some on the left are still looking for excuses rather than addressing how to make the party more appealing to voters. Rick Hasen, election law expert

The study is suspect because it attributed all of Wisconsin’s 3.3 percent decline in turnout to voter ID laws, said Barry Burden, director of the elections research center at the University of Wisconsin.

“In fact, turnout was surely affected by many factors including the ID law but also a less vigorous campaign and polling showing Clinton well ahead throughout the campaign,” he wrote in an email. “Many variables contributed to Clinton’s loss. Newly restrictive election laws such as the voter ID requirement in Wisconsin were factors. But those laws are only part of the explanation and probably not the most important part.”

Clinton isn’t the only Democrat to suggest voter suppression was responsible for her loss. Keith Ellison, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted about the Priorities USA study. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) also claimed turnout was reduced by 200,000 voters because of the state’s voter ID law. PolitiFact called that claim “mostly false,” and The Washington Post gave it three out of four possible Pinocchios.

Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Yale University, called the 200,000 number “bogus.”

Hersh’s own comprehensive research on voter ID laws in Texas found that about 115,000 people there lacked a require form of identification. And he said it was “ludicrous” to think that there were nearly twice as many affected voters in Wisconsin, a state considerably smaller than Texas.

He compared Democratic exaggerations on the impact of voter ID laws to the way Republicans have stoked fears about voter fraud and noncitizens voting ― an something that exists, but is not widespread.

“In an era in which the Republican nominee consistently lied, I think it’d be better for the Democratic Party to be associated with truth and science,” he said. “On the Republican side, there are, for sure, a few people who are noncitizens who vote. Now is there any danger to a Republican saying, ‘Yeah, it’s 100 or 1,000 times the number, that’s the truth’? Yeah, there’s a danger to it, because it’s a lie and because it makes people feel that the election system doesn’t work.”

“And when you make the same claim about voter ID ... then the Democrats are doing exactly as the Republicans are doing. People should be appalled by that,” he added.

In an era in which the Republican nominee consistently lied, I think it’d be better for the Democratic Party to be associated with truth and science. Eitan Hersh, political science professor at Yale University

Rick Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said he was worried that exaggerating the impact of voter ID could actually hurt Democrats trying to improve access to the ballot box.

“It is counterproductive for Democrats to tout a questionable study, as it can be easily debunked, allowing voter ID supporters to make the argument that there is no good social science supporting the idea that voter ID laws may suppress votes,” he said in an email.

“For Secretary Clinton to focus on this study is especially troubling,” he added. “It is pretty clear that some on the left are still looking for excuses rather than addressing how to make the party more appealing to voters. Clinton seems to be looking to blame everyone ― Wisconsin’s voter ID law, Russia, Comey ― rather than seeing her own weaknesses as a candidate.”

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