Fred Leidel was born in 1916, before women got the right to vote. At 99 years old, he biked to the polls in Madison, Wisconsin, on Election Day. He designed propeller blades for airplanes during World War II and was an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin. Everyone knew him at his polling place, Schenk Elementary School, where he volunteers to read to kindergartners.
But for the first time in his life, Leidel was turned away from the polls. He no longer drives, and his faculty ID, which he’d used to vote in the past, wasn’t accepted under Wisconsin’s strict new voter-ID law. “I never had any problems voting until today,” he said.
The poll workers called Molly McGrath of VoteRiders, who helps people get voter IDs, and she took Leidel to the Department of Motor Vehicles branch in East Madison, where he was issued a new state ID and given a temporary receipt for voting—an option only available because a court order forced the state government to make IDs readily available. Leidel returned to the polls a second time and successfully cast a ballot. If it hadn’t been for McGrath’s assistance, he would have been disenfranchised a month before his 100th birthday.
Not everyone was as determined to vote as Leidel. Margie and Alvin Mueller, who are 85 and 86, respectively, went to vote early in Plymouth. They’ve been married for 64 years and always vote at the same place. But Margie, who no longer drives, wasn’t able to vote because her driver’s license had expired.
Election officials said she had to get a new ID at the DMV in Sheboygan, 25 minutes away. But Margie, a cancer survivor who’s in between radiation treatments, wasn’t up for the trip. “When you’re 85, I guess you don’t count anymore,” she said. Her husband was so angry, he decided not to vote, either.
“I could’ve voted, but when they pulled that crap, I didn’t want to vote,” Alvin said. “We could’ve gone to Sheboygan, but it’s just the idea of it… to pull that crap, when she has a picture ID—what more do you want?” He blamed “the damn Republicans,” who “don’t want Latinos and old people to vote.” The Muellers were both Democrats who would have voted for Hillary Clinton.
The 2016 election was the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), because the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that states with a long history of discrimination no longer need to have their proposed voting changes approved by the federal government. Partly as a consequence, 14 states had new voting restrictions in effect for the first time in 2016—including important swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio.
We’ll never know how many people were kept from the polls by these restrictions, but in states like Wisconsin, they had at least some impact on the outcome. Donald Trump carried the state by 27,000 votes, but 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked the required forms of voter ID. Turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest level in 20 years and fell by 52,000 in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives. “We saw some of the greatest declines were in the districts we projected would have the most trouble with voter ID requirements,” Neil Albrecht, executive director of the city’s Election Commission, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.