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Wisconsin's Regressive Voter ID Law

It's about suppressing the vote

Aug. 3, 2011
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Wisconsin's new Voter ID law is slowly being rolled out during this summer's recall elections.

Proponents have argued that the new law—one of the most restrictive in the country—will crack down on widespread voter fraud.

But the law will do no such thing, since evidence of widespread voter fraud simply doesn't exist, according to an investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, a Republican.

What the new law will do is suppress the votes cast by minority citizens, the elderly, students and the poor—voters who typically support Democrats, which is why it was passed without a single Democratic vote of support.

Even worse, the new Voter ID law—enthusiastically signed by Gov. Scott Walker, who had introduced a similar bill when he was a state representative—contradicts Wisconsin's history.

"This law stands in utter opposition to Wisconsin's strong tradition of open access at the polls," said Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore. "Wisconsin's open access has kept our voter turnout among the highest in the nation. And that'll likely change now."

Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie did not respond to the Shepherd's request to comment on the law.

Wisconsin's Progressive Voting Tradition

Since the state's inception, Wisconsin has been a leader in voting rights.

The Wisconsin Constitution allowed immigrants who were not American citizens to vote in elections as long as they lived in the state for one year and declared their intention to become a U.S. citizen.

In 1849, just one year after Wisconsin became a state, voters approved a referendum allowing black men to vote. That provision wasn't seen as valid until 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie, a former slave who had moved to Milwaukee, successfully sued for his right to vote.

Unlike former slave states, post-Civil War Wisconsin had no significant barriers to voting, such as a poll tax or literacy tests that disenfranchised African Americans and poor citizens.

In 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which granted voting rights to all women, regardless of race, marital status or property holdings.

In the 1970s, the state Legislature enacted reforms that made it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot. Those progressive reforms include Election Day registration, the 10-day residency requirement, the expansion of the types of documents that could be used to establish residency, and the use of corroboration, which allows a friend or neighbor to vouch for a prospective voter if they don't have identification establishing their residency. In the 1980s, the voting rights of homeless citizens were affirmed.

"Beginning in the 1970s, Wisconsin really led the way in opening up voting," said League of Women Voters of Wisconsin member Carolyn Castore. "A whole lot of obstacles to voting were stripped away. Since then, Wisconsin has traditionally been a state with one of the highest voter turnouts, particularly in the partisan elections, and has had very, very few problems."

The Voter Fraud Myth

But problems are in the eye of the beholder.

The 1970s reforms seemed to work well until critics—overwhelmingly Republicans—complained of widespread voter fraud that allowed Democrats to win razor-thin margins in elections. That theme was pushed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which published story after story about alleged voter fraud on its front page. The George W. Bush administration similarly hyped alleged voter fraud, even going so far as to create a scandal when the administration fired eight federal prosecutors who were not turning up enough cases of these mythical fraudulent voters.

However, investigations by Republican U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic and others identified no widespread voter fraud in Wisconsin. Rather, clerical errors made by overwhelmed election officials were the cause of occasionally incongruent voter totals. In fact, Republican state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who has made alleged voter fraud one of his signature issues, was only able to turn up 14 improper votes out of the more than 3 million votes cast during the November 2008 election.

Despite the evidence that voter fraud was a myth meant to disenfranchise voters, voter ID legislation was pushed by Republicans in Wisconsin and around the country. This was not a coincidence, since the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a right-wing "think tank" that pairs conservative business leaders with Republican legislators to craft legislation that financially benefits corporations over the general public—drafted a model for voter ID legislation. The bills went nowhere when Democrats could block them.

Once Wisconsin Republicans took power, however, they enacted a Voter ID bill that the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures ranks as being one of the most restrictive in the country. It will also cost an estimated $5.7 million to implement.

Instead of sticking with progressive enfranchisement laws that seemed to boost participation without fraudulent ballots, Wisconsin is enacting a voter ID law that ranks with restrictive laws in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Texas and Indiana. In contrast, voters in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota (which has the highest voter turnout in the country), Nebraska and 16 other states do not have to show any sort of identification at the polls.

"The proponents of this bill cannot show evidence of voter impersonation, which is the only kind of illegal voting that this could possibly hold off," said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. "And it's very costly. So you've got a program that is unfair, evil and expensive. And unneeded."

A Poll Tax With Another Name

The new Voter ID law is getting a "soft implementation" during this summer's recall elections and will be rolled out in full in spring 2012. Voters in the August recalls will be asked for their photo ID but can still vote if they do not produce one. [See "How to Vote in the Recall Elections" for details.]

State Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) called the phased rollout a "fake out" meant to cause chaos and confusion at the polls and deter voters without an ID from casting a ballot.

"There's a lack of real public education about this bill," Coggs said. "People are confused currently and they'll be confused next year, too."

The bill's critics are worried about its impact on state voters, especially minority voters, the elderly, students and the poor—voters who typically support Democrats.

These voters often lack a valid photo ID that would allow them to vote. According to a 2005 UW-Milwaukee study, 55% of African-American men and 49% of African-American women in Milwaukee, 46% of Hispanic men and 59% of Hispanic women, 23% of seniors and 78% of young African-American men and 66% of young African-American women lack a photo ID.

Moore, along with more than 100 members of Congress, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to review the new voter ID laws that are springing up around the country. The letter states that approximately 11% of all voting-age citizens—more than 20 million people—lack a government-issued photo ID.

According to the Voting Rights Act, voting law changes in Southern states with a history of minority voter disenfranchisement must be reviewed by the attorney general or the District Court for the District of Columbia prior to implementation. Wisconsin's Voter ID law does not require the same vetting by the federal government, and Moore was unsure if the new law violates the Voting Rights Act. But she said that Holder should be put on notice about its potential to disenfranchise voters.

"Along with a number of my colleagues, I have asked the Department of Justice to oversee implementation of these laws like a hawk and to intervene the very moment if the law is implemented in a discriminatory way," Moore said.

She blasted Wisconsin's new law as "a poll tax, just with another name."

Republican legislators attempted to get around the poll tax issue by allowing potential voters to obtain a state ID free of charge. (They usually cost $28.) However, voters must state that the ID is meant for voting. State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) is circulating a bill that would require the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to inform citizens that the ID is free if it's intended for voting purposes.

The DMV, which issues the IDs, isn't encouraging its workers to help prospective voters through the process. Walker is also planning on closing up to 10 DMV offices around the state, seemingly targeting Democratic areas.

Although the state ID is free, the underlying documents that are required to verify one's identity are not. For example, a certified birth certificate costs $20, which is why the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last week asking that the county waive its fee for one year.

Sen. Coggs said he would like the fee to be waived statewide. That would help those who were born in Wisconsin, but potential voters who were born in another state, or who were never issued a birth certificate, would still have trouble.

"Some people don't have birth certificates and never did," said the League of Women Voters' Kaminski. "They may have been born at home, in the South, a long time ago—especially if they are African American. There was no birth certificate."

Coggs said that the many facets of the Voter ID law constituted "de facto disenfranchisement."

"There is no way that people won't be affected," Coggs said. "Rather than taking us forward, this is taking us backward."

How to Vote in the Recall Elections

If you live in the district of one of the state senators up for recall on Aug. 9 or Aug. 16, you need to be aware of the new requirements for voter identification. While the state's Voter ID law won't be implemented in full until next year, some aspects of the law are now in effect.

Here's what you need to do to vote in August's recall elections:

  • You may vote if you are at least 18 years old on Election Day, are a U.S. citizen, and have resided in Wisconsin for at least 28 days.
  • You may vote if you have been convicted of a felony and have completed all aspects of your sentence, including probation, parole or extended supervision. If you are still "on paper" on Election Day, you may not vote. If you have been convicted of a misdemeanor only, you may vote.
  • If you vote in person and you have registered at your current address, you will be asked to show a state-issued photo ID. If you do not provide one, you can still vote and you will be given a document explaining the Voter ID bill.
  • If you vote in person, you will be asked to sign the voter list. According to Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney, this is to ensure that the poll worker has correctly established that you have cast a ballot.
  • If you need to register to vote at your current address, you may do so prior to the election or on Election Day at the poll by establishing both your identity and your residence. To establish your identity, you must provide a valid Wisconsin driver's license. If you don't have a license, a state-issued ID is fine. If you don't have either, you can write the last four digits of your Social Security number on your registration card. If you don't have any of these documents, you must check off a box declaring that fact.
  • To complete your voter registration by establishing your current residence, you can use your state-issued driver's license or ID (if it has your current address), a recent utility bill, property tax bill, bank statement, lease or paycheck. Your residence cannot be established through corroboration by another person, as has been allowed in the past.
  • You may still vote with an absentee ballot. To obtain a ballot, contact your local municipal clerk. Do not rely on information provided by anyone other than your clerk. The ballot must be returned to your municipal office no later than the end of Election Day.
  • You may still vote with an in-person absentee ballot. Contact your local municipal clerk for details on when and where you may cast a ballot. If your local recall election is scheduled for Aug. 9, in-person absentee voting is cut off on Friday, Aug. 5. If your local recall election is scheduled for Aug. 16, the cutoff date is Friday, Aug. 12.
  • To check your voter registration and polling place and to see a sample ballot, go to the GAB's website at gab.wi.gov.
  • Fact sheets about voting can be found at the websites of the ACLU of Wisconsin (www.aclu-wi.org) and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin (www.lwvwi.org). The League is also looking for volunteer election observers for the Aug. 9 and Aug. 16 recalls.



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