Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) claimed during Wednesday night’s presidential debate that President Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016 because Republicans and Russians worked to suppress the votes of African Americans.
Election experts say he’s onto something.
“We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African American voters. We need to say that,” Booker said during the second night of the second set of debates, in Detroit.
“If the African American vote was four years earlier we would have won the state of Michigan,” he continued. “We need to have a campaign that is ready for what’s coming, an assault especially on the highest-performing voter group in our coalition, which is black women.”
Trump won the state by 10,704 votes.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) August 1, 2019
Reports from former special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee outlined how a “troll farm” called the Internet Research Agency, which has close ties to the Kremlin, made a coordinated effort on social media to suppress the black vote in 2016. African Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
There is reason to believe those Russian efforts worked. A new study from researchers at the University of Tennessee found that social media posts and disinformation spread by Russian troll farms influenced how Americans responded to opinion polls before the 2016 election.
Michigan voters were also hampered that year by Republican legislative maneuvers to suppress minority turnout.
Last November, Michigan voters passed sweeping voting rights laws that make it possible to vote absentee without providing a reason, allow people to register to vote on Election Day, and allow residents to automatically enroll to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
However, those laws were not in place in 2016, when turnout was low among college students, African American and Latinx voters — by the hundreds of thousands — according to Sharon Dolente, a voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan.
“Michigan’s entire system of voting was so arcane during 2016 that it suppressed a number of voters,” Dolente said. “Most of the changes we have now made would have significantly increased turnout beyond the margins in 2016. I don’t know how they would have voted but it would have been more than 11,000 voters. So the outcome could have been different.”
Democratic lawmakers introduced a number of bills that would have allowed no-reason absentee ballot voting before the 2016 election. However, Republicans — who took control of the state’s House, Senate, and governor’s office over an eight-year period starting in 2011, thanks in part to gerrymandering — blocked those bills from passing. Republicans argued that any reform must include a restrictive in-person voter ID requirement.
Voter ID mandates have traditionally been a pet cause of Republican lawmakers, who have at times acknowledged that such laws would give them an edge at the ballot box.
A study by the Center for American Progress found that when states implement same-day voter registration, voter participation increases on average by 5%. Same-day voter registration laws particularly impact populations that have historically been underrepresented in the political system, including young people and people of color, the study found. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
Before November, Michigan was one of more than 30 states that had not adopted same-day voter registration. Its implementation was projected to increase voter turnout in Michigan by more than 243,000, according to the Center for American Progress study.
There are also lingering questions about whether the votes of many black Michiganders were actually counted in 2016. On Election Day, more than 80 voting machines in Detroit malfunctioned, raising questions about the accuracy of election results in 59% of the majority-black city’s precincts.
The ballot-box failure itself was caused by the severe underfunding of America’s election system, said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. A shortage of poll workers and voting machines prompts long voting lines and longer waits at precincts in minority communities.
Due to those shortages, elections officials often don’t recognize issues with polling machines until Election Day, Dolente said.
Also some Michigan poll workers incorrectly told voters that they needed to show identification to vote, according to another study by the Center for American Progress. It is unclear how many people lost their opportunity to vote as a result.
In addition, just weeks before the 2016 election, Trump urged his supporters to monitor polling places to ensure that voter fraud and election rigging did not occur. Dolente said that while she defends poll-watching, she and other election advocates feared Trump’s comments would stir up violence.
“There was a concern of heightened violence at the polls… I think that also could have been a very suppressing impact on people of color,” Dolente said. “That is voter suppression.”
The extent of the suppression isn’t entirely clear. But experts believe it had some impact.
“It’s really hard to say whether things like this affect the outcome of any given election,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a voting-rights group. “But Sen. Booker is certainly correct that voter suppression played a role in the 2016 presidential election.”