Donald Trump’s claims that the election will be “rigged” through voter fraud have become a centerpiece of his faltering campaign. There’s no evidence to support this incendiary charge, but the GOP candidate has been energetically spreading the notion that if Hillary Clinton wins, it will only be because thousands of illegal votes will be cast on Nov. 8. Polls now suggest that most Trump supporters fear the election could be stolen from their man. Trump is right that fairness is going to be a problem this year. He’s wrong about where the problem really lies. In fact, the real voting problem we face in 2016 is almost exactly the opposite of what Trump is complaining about: Officials in at least five states, including several key presidential battlegrounds, have been dragging their feet on obeying court orders to open up access to the polls. As a result, rather than an epidemic of illegal, fraudulent votes, the election is likely to see tens or even hundreds of thousands of people across the country deprived of their constitutional right to cast a ballot. The election wasn’t supposed to unfold this way. Over the summer and early fall, 2016 was shaping up as a landmark year for voting rights, as a string of federal court rulings struck down, blocked or loosened restrictive voting laws in key states across the country. In the three most significant decisions, North Carolina’s sweeping voting law was struck down, Texas’ voter ID law was significantly loosened, and a court required that Wisconsin promise to make voter IDs available on demand, seemingly blunting the impact of that state’s ID law. Voting rights supporters, who had fought for years against restrictions on who can register and when, breathed a cautious sigh of relief. But as Election Day approaches, what’s actually happening on the ground in those states reveals a troubling reality: Important as they are, court rulings can’t adequately protect voting rights if election officials simply don’t want to make things easy for voters.
Wisconsin’s defiance has been the most glaring. Last month, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled that the state’s hyper-strict voter ID law could stay in place only if IDs were made freely available to any eligible voter who needed one. Lawyers for the state pledged that as long as voters went to a DMV office and presented whatever documents they had, they would get a temporary voter ID in the mail within the week. For voting rights advocates who wanted the law struck down entirely, it was far from a perfect solution—after all, requiring a trip to the DMV adds another burden, especially for working people. But it was far better than the previous situation, in which voters needed to present an array of underlying documents, like a birth certificate, just to get the ID.
Except that Wisconsin hasn’t kept to it. A voting rights group sent volunteers to DMV offices around the state, recorded their interactions with clerks, and shared the audio with reporters. Most of the clerks gave out incorrect information about how to get a temporary voter ID, and several didn’t even appear familiar with the process, instead instructing the volunteers to begin compiling the underlying documents previously required. “It’s very time-consuming,” one acknowledged. In response to the reports, Judge Peterson ordered the state to investigate what went wrong. But it’s no sure thing that things will be straightened out before the election, potentially leaving some portion of the estimated 300,000 registered Wisconsin votes who lack ID out in the cold.