Election officials focus on whether voter ID laws contributed to Hillary Clinton's defeat

Starting with John F. Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, Delia Anderson had voted in 14 straight presidential elections.

She had cast her ballot at the same polling place for years, never with a glitch. This year, however, a volunteer driving her to the polls mentioned that she would be asked to show a state-approved photo ID.

“Don’t these poll people already know who I am?” replied Anderson, who is 77, black and uses a wheelchair, as she frantically sifted through her purse for anything to prove her identity.

It was a lost cause. She had planned to vote for Hillary Clinton. Instead, for the first time in 56 years, she did not cast a ballot.

“Lord, have mercy,” she said. “What happened to voting?”

Such stories abound in Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold in a state where Donald Trump won by 22,748 votes, a key victory in his path to the presidency.

Now, voting rights advocates, elections officials and political experts have zeroed in on the city as a case study of whether controversial new rules requiring ID for voting — the kind used in several states in November for the first time in a presidential election — blocked vast numbers of largely young and racial minority Democrats from casting ballots and contributed to Clinton’s defeat.

In a state that saw its lowest turnout in 20 years, nearly 248,000 people voted in Milwaukee, roughly 41,000 fewer than in the last presidential election.

“I believe it was voter suppression laws from the state government that crushed turnout,” said Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki, one of two officials who oversees local elections. “They tend to hit hardest on people who are poor, who don’t drive and don’t have a license, who are minorities.”

Other experts said the picture is more complicated, pointing out that many factors affect voting behavior.

That makes it difficult to say whether new voting policies this year — from a voter ID requirement in Virginia to cutbacks in early voting in Ohio and the closure of hundreds of polling sites across Southern states formerly regulated by the Voting Rights Act — decisively swayed election results, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who studies voter turnout.

“African American turnout was down across the board from 2012, and that likely had something to do with Obama not being on the ballot,” he said.

Voter turnout also decreased in some traditionally Democratic areas with large black populations, such as Detroit, where strict voter ID laws were not in place.

Still, activists say the election results and reports of voter disenfranchisement are spurring a renewed battle against voting restrictions.

At a conference in early December in Washington, dozens of voter rights advocates from around the country discussed how to push against an possible onslaught of voting restrictions over the coming years.

“We’re preparing for the long haul,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which hosted the gathering. This year, her group’s national hotline for voter issues logged 117,000 calls, including thousands complaining about voter ID laws. 

In Wisconsin, hundreds of thousands of people were registered to vote but didn’t have ID cards, according to Ken Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To study the impact of the law, he is using public records to survey thousands of state residents who were registered to vote but did not cast ballots. In addition to the university, two heavily Democratic counties, Dane and Milwaukee, are funding the study.

"Many different things that could have been going on,” Mayer said. “The goal is to find out what, exactly, happened.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has vigorously defended the voter ID law.

“Voter turnout in this year's Wisconsin presidential primary was the highest since 1972 with voter ID in place, so to now suggest turnout was down in the general election because of it is wrong,” said Tom Evenson, a spokesman for the governor. “We have made voting easy while ensuring it is hard to cheat.” 

But for Anderson, who lives on the the poorer north side of Milwaukee where the city’s black population is clustered, voting was anything but easy.

On election day, she considered going to the DMV to apply for an ID card and using the receipt to vote, which the law allows.

But she would have needed her long-lost birth certificate to apply as well as somebody to drive her to the DMV, wait in line with her and take her to the polls.

“I’ve always been telling everyone they should vote,” Anderson said. “Now it was me who was not voting.”

It was also Andrea Anthony, who lives near by and had voted since 2000.

Anthony had seen news reports that she needed an ID this year and used her driver’s license in order to vote in the Democratic primary. But the week before the general election, she lost her license.

She cast a provisional ballot and was told it would be counted if within three days she submitted an ID or proof that she applied for one. But taking care of five kids and two grandchildren, “I just didn’t have the time to go get one,” she said.

“I just felt for the first time my vote didn’t matter,” said Anthony, who is 36 and African American. “But I have to take responsibility for not voting.”

Two of her children also sat out because they lacked IDs — and didn’t know they could apply for temporary papers at the DMV.

Not everyone affected by ID laws supported Clinton, and not all were racial minorities.

Anthony Roark, a white 29-year-old Milwaukee resident who moved recently from South Dakota, had considered applying for a state license before voting day. But Roark, a butcher at Whole Foods, said fees and paperwork required to transfer his license to Wisconsin were off-putting.

“I just felt the principle of paying to vote was wrong,” said Roark, who supported Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Roark could have also applied for a free ID card only for voting, but he didn’t realize that was an option.

Molly McGrath, who worked in Wisconsin for VoteRiders and Project Vote, two nonpartisan voting advocacy groups, said her team assisted 18,000 Wisconsin voters over the last year, many who were longtime voters but had questions this year about the process.

“The confusion over ID laws was widespread,” she said.

More laws could be on the way as Republican-led state legislatures push for new restrictions, despite overwhelming evidence that voter fraud is not a significant problem.

In Michigan, where Trump won by 10,704 votes, lawmakers said this week they will renew efforts to pass an ID law. In Texas, state officials have vowed to do the same despite a federal court ruling this summer that shot down an ID law on the grounds that it discriminated against Hispanics and African Americans.

Voting rights advocates said they have been encouraged by several court decisions ahead of election, including a federal ruling over the summer that invalidated North Carolina’s voter ID requirement for targeting African Americans.

“The legal battle is likely not over,” McDonald said. “I would not be surprised to see this go to the Supreme Court.”

jaweed.kaleem@latimes.com

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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An earlier version of this story said nearly 3 million people voted in Milwaukee. That was the number who voted in the entire state. In Milwaukee, nearly 248,000 people voted.

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