The Problem for Democratic Voters in 2016 Wasn’t Their Lack of Effort

On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, former first lady Michelle Obama issued a powerful, sweeping call for voters to support Joe Biden’s presidential bid while she laid out the Trump administration’s failings. She detailed how a lack of seriousness given to the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in substantial harm to human life, and how the president threw gasoline on an already volatile social climate by encouraging law enforcement to act violently toward anti-racist protesters.

“Let me be as honest and as clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He simply cannot be who we need him to be. It is what it is.”

But her message was not entirely about Trump’s failings. Obama also mentioned Democrats’ lower-than-desired voter turnout in 2016.

“Four years ago, too many people chose to believe that their votes didn’t matter. Maybe they were fed up. Maybe they thought the outcome wouldn’t be close. Maybe the barriers felt too steep,” said Obama. “Whatever the reason, in the end, those choices sent someone to the Oval Office who lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.”

There was a bit of a conceptual disconnection between the image of those misguided nonvoters and the fact that 3 million more people had voted for the losing candidate than for the winner. Later in the speech, Obama tied a bow on the argument by detailing the sweeping voter suppression tactics utilized by the GOP.

“We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can,” she said. “We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they’re received. And then make sure our friends and families do the same.”

She’s not wrong. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Trump administration is willing to do whatever is within its power to remain in office, and a nationally synced effort to vote early might help combat this. Still, it’s worth picking apart the framing often used by Democrats in these calls to action, with its mixed message that the voting system is stacked against you but you’re responsible for the outcome.

Let’s start with 2016. Sixteen million people, or 12 percent of voters, encountered at least one form of difficulty while voting in that year’s election, according to a study from MIT. Voter ID laws, long lines, and problems with registering cost at least 1 million votes, according to researchers. The impact of voter ID laws was seen acutely in Wisconsin, which had the second-highest voter participation nationally in the prior two elections. In 2016, participation fell to its lowest since 2000. The largest decline happened in Milwaukee, a predominantly Black constituency, that Hillary Clinton was carrying significantly. Similar barriers to voting occurred in other states with large Black constituencies, including battlegrounds that went red on razor-thin margins. Not to mention the Electoral College.

The Democrats’ position, in the face of these results, is to argue that the game is stacked against the voters, so everybody just has to play harder. It’s evident that, this year especially, voters do wish to engage, but it remains incredibly difficult to do so. And while there isn’t much that could be done about the barriers as long as the Trump administration is in office, going forward it’s imperative that the party’s talking points shift from focusing on voter responsibility when the evidence largely suggests that isn’t the crux of the problem. The crisis for American democracy in 2020 isn’t that people think or feel they don’t get a fair chance to make a difference by voting. It’s that they’re right to think that.

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