Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
The US has a fairly low rate of voter participation compared to other nations. A recent study found that only 48% of eligible voters participate in a typical US election, ranking 138th of 169 countries. In contrast, Canadian, Australian, and Italian elections draw 83%, 84%, and 92% of eligible citizens, respectively. However, there is a recent trend in many Republican-led states to discourage eligible voters from casting ballots and to drive our already mediocre election participation even lower.
Florida is the most heinous example of wide-spread voter discouragement. Marathon lines as long as seven hours awaited voters this year. The number of days of early voting was slashed from 14 to 8. Until a judge threw them out, new laws covering voter registration were so onerous that non-partisan registration groups like the League of Women stopped working the state. The harshest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country were passed, with 1.3 million Florida residents not allowed to vote under its provisions. Using very flawed data, Governor Scott pushed a purge of the voter rolls weeks before the election, especially targeting Latino voters. Suppression efforts in Ohio and Pennsylvania were almost as bad.
What about Wisconsin? Our state politicians were working on voter suppression tactics of their own. In May 2011, our state legislature passed Act 23, an attempt to rewrite the way that our elections are conducted. The most controversial part of the act was the requirement that voters show an approved type of photo ID at the poll.
At first glance, a voter ID law is not so unreasonable. Why shouldn't we show ID's when voting? However, many studies have shown that the widespread election fraud it purports to fix is mythical. Voter ID is an expensive and unneeded fix to a nonexistent problem. On closer examination, the real motivation is clear. An estimated 300,000 Wisconsin residents do not have a current photo ID. These people are concentrated in student, working poor, minority, and elderly populations. Most of these groups vote heavily Democratic.
In March, Judge Richard Niess struck down the photo ID law portion of Act 23, deeming it in violation of the state constitution. In a separate June decision, the state was permanently barred from enforcing the photo ID law by Judge David Flanagan. Flanagan said the photo ID portion of the act imposes a greater burden on voters than is permitted in our state constitution. The State Supreme Court has yet to take-up the cases. Two other challenges to Wisconsin photo ID are in the Federal Court system.
As if the partisan motivation for passing voter ID was in any doubt, just believe one of the bill's sponsors. In a post election interview on Upfront with Mike Gousha, State Senator Alberta Darling was asked if Voter ID would have made any difference in Mitt Romney's Wisconsin results. Darling said, “Absolutely.”
In addition to photo ID, other partisan-motivated changes were made by Act 23 which were not impacted by the court rulings. These include the requirement that anyone registering voters receive training by the municipal clerk for each city in which those voters live. So a person registering voters from Germantown, the Falls, and Milwaukee must sit through three separate training sessions. This makes it more difficult to register new voters, a group which votes heavily Democratic. The precinct residency requirement for voting was increased from 10 days to 28 days, especially impacting college students. The timing window for absentee voting was curtailed, affecting largely Democratic early voting drives.
As if legislative attempts to suppress Democratic votes are not enough, there were private attempts at outright voter intimidation. Texas-based Tea Party group “True the Vote” sent poll watchers to our state to intimidate voters in heavily Democratic wards. The state Republican Party and other conservative groups tried to abet this voter intimidation, requesting that the GAB relax guidelines that poll watchers remain 6 feet from those casting ballots. The Milwaukee-based Einhorn Family Foundation bought 85 billboards in Milwaukee urban neighborhoods, trying to promote a sinister link of criminality with the voting process.
The voter suppression efforts in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin did not pay-off in November. President Obama still carried all three states. However, our state politicians seem to want to double down on their efforts. During a November 16 California speech to a right wing group, Scott Walker revealed his next plans for our state. He wants to eliminate same-day voter registration, a practice that has worked well since its implementation in 1976.
The excuse Walker gave for stopping same day registration was lame in the extreme, saying that it would be easier on the retirees who staff the polls. This immediately generated much protest from poll workers, who insist that registering voters on election day is not an issue. In fact, there would be much more hassle, with many more provisional votes, if the practice was eliminated. If our Governor really wanted to make poll workers' lives easier, then he should not have signed a bill requiring the additional work of checking photo ID's and of having people sign the voter rolls.
It is puzzling that politicians who claim to be for deregulation of business are pushing for more regulation and red tape in our voting process. Rather than try to limit the number of voters, our elected officials should work to maximize participation of our citizens in the democratic process. They should attempt to win on the merits of their arguments and ideology rather than through suppression of the vote.