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Why the Wisconsin recount matters

David Greenwald
Nov 27, 2016 · 10 min read

For the last several weeks, I and a number of volunteers have been independently researching the Nov. 8 election results in the state of Wisconsin and other swing states—ones that were polling in favor of Hillary Clinton for months and swung by just thousands of votes to Donald Trump. Apart from questions of hacking, what we have found is a black hole of errors and suppression. With a recount confirmed for Wisconsin, here is a brief guide to what to know in the weeks ahead.

Voter Suppression

The cumulative effect of the Supreme Court’s decisions, Congress’ enactment of voting rights legislation, and the ongoing efforts of concerned private citizens and the Department of Justice, has been to restore the right to vote guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments. The Voting Rights Act itself has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress.

In 2013, in a 5–4 vote on Shelby County v. Holder, a key section was struck down by the Supreme Court.

Since then, and even earlier in Wisconsin’s case, state-level Republican governments have engaged in a years-long, strategic effort to disenfranchise and restrict the voting rights of growing populations of Democrat voters of color, as confirmed by their own statements and multiple court decisions. They have been tremendously successful.

Voter suppression takes many forms. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a total of 14 states had new restrictions running in 2016, not including states such as North Carolina, where courts struck the law down with just weeks before the general election.

Their overview:

Overall, 20 states have new restrictions in effect since the 2010 midterm election. Since 2010, a total of 10 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (and six states have strict photo ID requirements) seven have laws making it harder for citizens to register, six cut back on early voting days and hours, and three made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.

Polling places

As Ari Berman reported in The Nation, 868 previously available polling places were tactically removed from states including Arizona (212), Texas (403!), Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina—with the latter showing that where one form of suppression fails, another can rise up. As Berman explains:

Many of these counties have been hot spots for voting discrimination. Cochise County, on the Mexico border, which is 30 percent Latino, was sued by the Justice Department in 2006 failing to print election materials in Spanish or have Spanish-speaking poll workers, in violation of the VRA. Today, the county “is the nation’s biggest closer by percentage,” having shuttered 63 percent of its voting locations since Shelby. There will be only 18 polling places for 130,000 residents in 2016, down from 49 polling places in 2012.

Crosscheck’s voter purges

The Interstate Crosscheck system is a voter database responsible for clearing names from the rolls that’s been used by 27–30 states since its origination in Kansas in 2005. It is thus powerful enough to play a major part in national elections, yet it remained all but invisible during the 2016 campaign: there has not been a single mention of “Interstate Crosscheck” in the New York Times or the Washington Post since 2014.

Reporter Greg Palast has been one of the few, and often the only, journalist reporting on Crosscheck. In a major story for Rolling Stone in August, he reported:

Rolling Stone obtained a portion of the list and the names of 1 million targeted voters. According to our analysis, the Crosscheck list disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies: young, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters — with some of the biggest possible purges underway in Ohio and North Carolina, two crucial swing states with tight Senate races.

Above emphasis mine. Palast continues:

Tens of thousands face the loss of their ability to vote — all for the sake of preventing a crime that rarely happens. So far, Crosscheck has tagged an astonishing 7.2 million suspects, yet we found no more than four perpetrators who have been charged with double voting or deliberate double registration.

I live in Oregon, which offers state-wide voting by mail and generates one of the nation’s highest turnout rates each year. (It also votes stridently Democratic.) Per Palast, Oregon has dropped out of Crosscheck. Its secretary of state says: “The data we received was unreliable.”

Database expert Mark Swedlund told Palast:

“I’m a data guy,” Swedlund says. “I can’t tell you what the intent was. I can only tell you what the outcome is. And the outcome is discriminatory against minorities.”

Raw data from Crosscheck and questions about its utility can be seen directly in this 2015 legal document.

Crosscheck is run by Kris Kobach, who has since joined Donald Trump’s transition team. That’s him holding a homeland security document with the words “voter rolls,” extreme vetting, instructions on building a wall with Mexico, and plans to reinstate the anti-Muslim registry he developed after 9/11. Here’s how NBC News describes him:

The man who helped write the book on creating a federal Muslim registry in the name of national security, now has Donald Trump’s ear as a top member of his transition team.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a policy wonk with a reputation for handcrafting the legal means to political ends, says he has a plan to help Trump pull off some of his most contentious campaign promises.

Trump has explored a variety of methods to vet potential terror threats, targeting specifically Muslims by proposing outright travel bans or creating a federal database of all people in the United States who practice Islam.

Somehow, no one has written a feature story connecting Kobach’s work toward registering members of a religious group with his work removing minorities from voter rolls.

The GOP agenda

The usual argument for these changes is voter fraud: dead people are voting, unregistered undocumented workers are voting, etc. These claims have been rigorously disproven, according to the Brennan Center, and other resources. According to Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt’s research reported in the Washington Post, between 2000 and 2014, he found a grand total of 31 incidents out of 1 billion ballots.

There is no scientific reason to institute more stringent voting laws. But there is a political one.

As Palast noted, Wisconsin Congressman Glenn Rothman said so himself in April 2016, on live TV. Asked why Wisconsin wouldn’t go blue in 2016 he said:

“I think Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up and now we have photo ID, and I think that photo ID is gonna make a bit of a difference as well.”

Pennsylvania’s Mike Turzai made a similar remark in 2012, also captured on tape.

“Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania… done!”

Judges and courts examining these laws have come to the same conclusions. As the Washington Post reported in August:

The Supreme Court will not allow North Carolina in the November election to use its strict voting law that a lower court found was enacted “with almost surgical precision” to blunt the influence of African American voters.

Crucially, the Court made a split 4–4 decision: with the presence of the late Antonin Scalia, the suppressive law would’ve likely been upheld.


Voter ID

In the city of Milwaukee, the state’s biggest, blue-voting urban center, the Journal Sentinel reported that 41,000 fewer voters had shown up to vote than in 2012. Donald Trump won the state on election night by around 27,000 voters, a number that has since dropped to around 22,000 after canvassing pointed out inaccurate counts in several counties.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of Milwaukee’s Election Commission, made the connection to the state’s voter ID laws.

“We saw some of the greatest declines were in the districts we projected would have the most trouble with voter ID requirements,” he said.

The New York Times reported:

Milwaukee’s lowest-income neighborhoods offer one explanation for the turnout figures. Of the city’s 15 council districts, the decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016 in the five poorest was consistently much greater than the drop seen in more prosperous areas — accounting for half of the overall decline in turnout citywide.

The biggest drop was here in District 15, a stretch of fading wooden homes, sandwich shops and fast-food restaurants that is 84 percent black.

The Times’ story is headlined “Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote—and Don’t Regret It,” in line with the national media narrative that there was simply less excitement around Hillary Clinton, or more concern around her email server, WikiLeaks and a pair of FBI announcements arriving days before Nov. 8. So, definitely, people stayed home. But this narrative elides the impact of voter suppression, whose full statistical damage has not been studied and can’t be effectively compared to anecdotal interviews: it would be generous to call this narrative decision, and the punditry around it, “guessing.”

The Times does get to suppression, after 17 paragraphs:

Mr. Albrecht, of the election commission, said other factors contributed to the decline in turnout. This was the first general election under new state laws that required voters to produce an approved photo ID card, and that stiffened the requirements for new voters to prove their residence. This was particularly onerous for the poor, who move often.

Mr. Albrecht said he believed this change had cost several thousand people in the city their vote.

“To me that’s very significant,” he said. “It takes away from the fairness and integrity of the election.”

It is very significant—especially, as I’ll discuss in the next section, when over 5,000 election night votes were invented out of “error.” Wisconsin was decided by just 22,000 votes (as of today): with Clinton over 2 million ahead in the national popular vote count, the entire Electoral College is riding on 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As Berman reported in his extensive time in Wisconsin, as many as 300,000 voting-age citizens may have lacked the ID required to vote.

Every vote counts.

In my team’s own research, Mark Lovett’s statistical analysis found strong suggestions of suppression’s impact when county demographics were taken into account. Mark writes:

Another major factor in Wisconsin is Democratic underperformance in Milwaukee county. Clinton underperformed (-13.07%) as did Trump (-18.61%) while county votes were down massively (-11.69%). Ultimately Clinton earned 43,000 votes fewer than Obama 2012. She even fell about 9,000 votes short of Kerry in 2004. Milwaukee county is easily the least white county in the state.

The opposite was true in Dane county. Clinton was essentially flat (+0.66%) while Trump underperformed (-14.79%) and total votes were flat in the county (+0.18%). These are the two bastions of the Democratic party and accounted for 25.12% of all votes cast statewide.

Between the massive disparity between Milwaukee and Dane county as well as the three largest flipped counties that were less white than held R counties and also saw total drops in total votes, the effect of the voter ID law is obvious.

False votes

On election night, at least Wisconsin counties, Outagamie, Sauk, and Waukesha, reported voting numbers with more votes cast for President than total ballots received. Naturally, this is impossible. As I have reported, 5,130 votes have since disappeared from the Wisconsin state total as a result of the canvassing and certification process, in which election night numbers are checked and confirmed. Nearly all of these votes, 4,931 in total so far, were removed from Donald Trump’s total, bringing his margin of victory from 27,257 to around 22,000.

To be clear, that means 18% of Donald Trump’s election night margin in Wisconsin came out of thin air.

The certification process that found these issues is set to go until Dec. 1: the deadline for a state recount in Wisconsin was Friday, Nov. 25, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed for one.

How did this happen? In Outagamie, where added numbers were found in four precincts, the Post-Crescent reports that this was simply an error of election night efforts, according to Outagamie County Clerk Lori O’Bright.

The day before, the local ABC News affiliate was more specific:

Lynn Mischker, the Village Clerk-Treasurer wrote, “In order to give election returns to the Outagamie County Clerk’s office as quickly as possible the Chief Inspector added together the votes from the election machine tapes. An error was made while keying the numbers on the calculator during this process resulting in an incorrect number of votes reported on Election night.

Well, no: four errors were made. And in fact there were more. Outagamie was only responsible for 1,294 “error” votes out of the 5,130 discovered so far.

In Sauk County, according to one citizen journalist’s conversation with the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s Reid Magney, the city of Baraboo “had reporting problems on election night (a modem not working correctly) and was counted twice.”

Much has been made in the last week about how voting machines, at least on election day, are not connected to the internet. But clearly, that does not mean voting results never encounter it, and the errors—real or driven by dedicated hackers—it can present.

No reporting has been done yet on what was responsible for Waukesha’s errors. But the fact remains that the same “errors” occurred across multiple counties and precincts, benefiting only one candidate. That alone should be enough for a recount.

Exit Polls

One measure of voter suppression efforts can be traced with the exit polls. As Greg Palast reported: “A 3.9% victory by #Clinton became a .9% loss in the final count.” (That loss is now down to .8% in current counts.) As Palast has pointed out, exit pollers can ask “Who did you vote for,” but they don’t ask, “Was your vote counted?” This can result in provisional ballots, high numbers of which are often tossed out or excluded from final results.

(Note: According to a 2014 document listing participants, Wisconsin was not using the Crosscheck system. I haven’t found documents confirming the state’s 2016 status, but changes have been made: Oregon, Washington and Florida are confirmed to have left the system since 2014.)

What’s next?

The chance to vote and shape our democracy is a foundation of American life that should not be infringed by race, class, or belief. Given these numerous issues, it should be common sense and a constitutional duty to offer a thorough recount and audit in Wisconsin and other states, followed by the return of full voting protections and rights for the vulnerable citizens targeted by voter ID, poll access, Crosscheck and other partisan, strategic attacks on civil rights.

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