Once data scientists invoked the threat of Russian hackers, it took less than a week for the vote audit in Wisconsin to be crowdfunded and Clinton-endorsed. The recount and the paranoid atmosphere it supports have been referred to as a “slanderous” attack on our voting system, a distraction from the countermoves good Democrats should be making. And it does seem unlikely at this point that the audit will challenge Trump’s claim to the presidency, or that it’ll find evidence of a massive foreign conspiracy. Still, if you’re fond of saying you live in a representative democracy, it seems reasonable to at least pretend to care whether votes count.
Cold War-style attacks and the dramatic overturning of a demagogue are enticing fantasies (they do certainly make good headlines), and here in America we only do recounts when there’s a terrible, nation-altering rift. But in the likely event that neither of those scenarios come to pass, it’s still nice to think we might value the process on which we base (and export) our national identity enough to give it a double-check. When an “unusually high” number of people voted in occupied Iraq, there was an audit. When the voter turnout in the United States is lower than it’s been in almost 20 years, and hundreds of voter restriction laws have been recently enacted, and our voting machines can be easily programmed to play Pac-Man, we need a high-profile third-party candidate to goad us into doing it.
In the months leading up to the election, reports of voter disenfranchisement were well-documented. It was the first election in nearly 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act—most notably, without one of the act’s key provisions, which required minimal federal oversight when it came to how states regulate the voting process. (It was stuck down in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.) Since then, states from Texas to North Carolina to Wisconsin have passed complex voting laws, many of which were brought to court for their obvious targeting of low-income populations, the elderly, and voters of color.
Trump likes to tweet about the “millions” of undocumented immigrants who voted against him; the GOP likes to write laws protecting democracy from voter fraud, though more Americans are struck by lightning than attempt to vote as another person. Meanwhile, those laws systematically disenfranchise voters inclined to go Democratic, including students and people of color.
We let corporations and billionaires spend as much as they want in order to bend politicians’ ears. We live in a country where a candidate can soundly win the popular vote and be defeated. It seems like a relatively small concession to make sure those votes are accurately counted—and to regard an audit not as a petty partisan attack but a necessary check on a system already weighed against such a huge swath of the population. The following are just a few of the restrictions in effect during this election—many of which have drawn comparison to the literacy tests and polling taxes banned by the original Voting Rights Act in 1965—that suppressed untold numbers of voters in 2016.
Voter ID laws
As of November 2016, 31 states enforced some sort of voter ID requirement. Sixteen, including Wisconsin, require residents to present photo identification in order to vote. In the months leading up to the election, a version of Wisconsin’s voter ID law was struck down by a district court, which called it “a cure worse than the disease”—it was later reinstated by the Supreme Court, and as many as 30,000 people in the state could have lacked the proper identification to vote. A similar measure in North Carolina was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year for its tendency to “target African-Americans with an almost surgical precision.”
Even with such attempts to soften voter ID laws, the law’s effect on voter turnout, specifically among people of color, was likely massive. In Milwaukee, days after the election, the city’s election chief told the Chicago Tribune there had been a decline of more than 40,000 voters since 2012, most of them in “transient, high-poverty areas” projected to have the most difficulty procuring IDs.
Shady voter registration practices and voter roll purges
Since Shelby, and in particular during the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, a vast number of voter registration mandates were created and then promptly overturned in court for their clear and direct disenfranchisement of low-income and non-white voters. In August, a Georgia county removed one-fifth of its voting population—almost exclusively voters of color—from its voting registry, demanding that in order to regain their right to vote they had to appear at an in-person summons. In three counties in North Carolina with large populations of people of color, thousands of voter registrations were canceled, under the auspices of a since-overturned law that allowed a registration to be challenged based on a single piece of returned mail. (When the GOP reported early voting was down for African-Americans in that state, they referred to the numbers as “encouraging.”)
Fewer polling sites and the reduction of early voting
According to a study from the Leadership Conference Education Fund days after the election, there were 868 fewer polling places in 2016 than in 2013, when part of the Voting Rights Act was overturned. Many of those sites were in counties with a high density of people of color, and the closures, the authors wrote, had largely gone “unnoticed, unreported, and unchallenged.” And when North Carolina was unsuccessful in entirely dismantling early voting and banning same-day voter registration, it shrunk its number of early voting sites to the legal minimum—one per county, meaning that voters with inflexible schedules would have to travel great distances to vote. Reports from early voting sites in other states suggested the need far outweighed the available polling sites: In one densely populated Georgia county with a recent surge in black voters, the single early voting site was overwhelmed with thousands of voters.
Voter intimidation and misinformation
While physical voter intimidation wasn’t as widespread—or at least as widely reported—as originally feared on Election Day, there were odd instances of Trump supporters making a scene at polling sites. But more insidious were the disinformation campaigns targeting Democratic voters: Fake ads circulated on Twitter in English and Spanish falsely claiming it was possible to text-message a vote for Clinton. In Maine, the famously crazed governor Paul LePage, a hardcore Trump acolyte, took his party’s voter suppression tactics out of the legislative halls and into the streets, circulating flyers claiming college students in the state would be required to pay a fee and become residents of their school’s town in order to vote there.
LePage isn’t very smart—he’s suggested black and Latino drug dealers are coming to Maine and impregnating white girls, and has left crude and threatening messages on other legislator's phones—but his willingness to so loudly externalize the racism usually dog-whistled and quietly legislated by his party should be instructive. All of which is to say: To get sanctimonious about the honorable nature of our democratic system is short-sighted and a little vain, given the circumstances. An audit won’t change any of these policies, and it probably won’t cancel the apocalypse. But if we’re going to pretend this is a democracy, the least we can do is pretend to care about the results of an already deeply flawed popular vote.