Wisconsin Recall: A Conservative Case for Election Day Registration

As the nation waited for the Wisconsin recall results to come in, Twitter began to light up with conservative claims of voter fraud. "Please @ me with any stories of #WI #WIrecall voter fraud," tweeted conservative radio host and pundit Dana Loesch around 11 a.m.  She noted stories on busing voters in across state lines and on supposedly suspicious high turn-out rates. "It's not 'fraud' if you didn't cheat enough to rob voters of the lawmakers they choose," she wrote. 

Others joined in. 

"@GovWalker needs to make sure he wins by an amount greater than the margin of fraud," tweeted @RickMoore.

"Early results show #TomBarrett leading #ScottWalker amongst dead voters, illegal aliens and cartoon characters," tweeted @rovibe71. 

"Dems really need to embrace honesty for 'change' and rename themselves 'The Vote Fraud Party". [sic] Disgusting" wrote @Furrystoat.

These tweets all arrived as news was breaking of huge turnouts around the state and pundits were speculating about a close finish. When the dust settled and it turned out GOP Governor Scott Walker had a decisive victory, the fraud claims seemed to die down.  

For a long time now, issues of basic voting rights have played out before a partisan backdrop. Republicans in states across the country have pushed for more restrictions to voting—like stringent voter-ID laws and repealing same-day registration—while Democrats have typically fought against such efforts. Each side advocates the position that would seemingly yield it the most political advantage. Many believe low-income and minority voters are disproportionately impacted by voting barriers, and, if allowed to vote, would tend to vote Democratic; making it harder to vote would benefit Republicans.

But the Wisconsin recall offers an unexpected counter-example. The state has Election Day registration, allowing people to show up at the polling station, register to vote, and then vote all on the big day. And while the state's Republican legislature passed a photo-ID requirement last year, that requirement is currently held up in courts and not yet in effect. In the end, the recall election attracted enormous turnout, including huge numbers of newly registered voters. And the Republicans won decisively. 

Lawrence Norden, a deputy director for the Democracy Program at the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, hopes the Wisconsin example will help counter perceptions that voting rights should be partisan fodder. Election Day registration "is probably one of the few election changes where there is very good empirical data that it increases turnout," he says.

According to Norden, the partisan split on voting rights is a new thing, and the new voting restrictions, like photo-ID laws, "have just been in reaction to what happened in the last [presidential] election." 

"Up until a few years ago, there was not a single state that required" a photo ID to vote, he notes. Since then, eight other states have passed voter-ID legislation. While in most cases, the implementation of those laws have been held up by the Department of Justice or the courts, Norden notes that "whether or not they're actually in effect, they can act as a drag on turnout."

In the meantime, opening up polling places to new voters doesn't have to be a partisan decision. Norden notes that the first election day registration law came out of Maine's 1973 Republican legislature.

For optimistic voting-rights advocates, Wisconsin may prove to be a helpful example of how high turnout doesn't necessarily benefit one party. In this case, the GOP's huge fundraising advantage allowed for tons of money to be spent on grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts. The Republicans turned out their base in droves—and in the process likely benefited from the same-day voter registration laws. While many have pointed to what the election's outcome says about money in politics and the labor versus Tea Party organizing, the election also shows Republicans can win in high turnout elections.

It's an unlikely silver lining for voting rights activists. As Norden puts it, "there may be the opportunity [to build] consensus around the idea that increased participation is good for everybody."

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