So few Americans cast ballots that a new president was elected by barely a quarter of Americans eligible to vote. Some of those who did vote waited in line for hours. Others were told they needed an ID to vote under a law the courts had nullified months ago — and sometimes, under laws that never existed to begin with. Amid the ruins of the ugliest presidential campaign in modern history, Democrats are bemoaning an election apparatus so balky and politically malleable that throngs of would-be voters either gave up trying to cast ballots or cast ones that were never counted. This was the first presidential election in a half century that was held without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Voting rights advocates spent the year in court battling, with incomplete success, to roll back restrictions on the franchise enacted by Republican legislatures in state after state. Some scholars and election analysts questioned this week whether a better run and less politically influenced voting process might have changed the outcome in some close races and made the presidential contest even closer. The headline example is Wisconsin, where a Republican-backed law requiring voters to produce one of a limited number of acceptable photo IDs was in effect for the first time. Studies show — and some Republicans admit — that such laws disproportionately reduce Democratic turnout because many of the laws require IDs that low-income and immigrant voters, who are often Democrats, frequently lack. In Milwaukee, where turnout dropped 41,000 votes from the 2012 total, the chief elections official said on Friday that declines in voting were greatest in areas where lack of IDs was most common. Donald J. Trump won Wisconsin by about 27,000 votes.
No conclusion can be drawn on the impact of the ID requirement until voting data is analyzed, said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago and an election law expert. But “it’s at least a reasonable hypothesis that voting restrictions made a major difference in places like Wisconsin,” he said. Others said they remained skeptical until election data could be sifted. Some of the strictest voter-identification laws that Republican legislatures had enacted were struck down by courts before balloting began, they noted, and support for Hillary Clinton declined across the board from 2012 levels, not just in states with stricter voter ID requirements.
“With their election debacle, Democrats are looking for a scapegoat,” said Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading election scholar. “And as much as I am upset with the efforts of Republican legislatures to make it harder to register and vote, I don’t think that’s the primary explanation for the Democrats’ failure at the top of the ticket.” There is nevertheless broad agreement that the electoral system failed large numbers of would-be voters this year, and substantial doubt that many of those failings will be remedied anytime soon.