Curbing Voting Rights in Wisconsin

On Tuesday morning, Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Elections Committee approved a controversial bill containing major changes to state voting law. If passed in the full Assembly, where it could see a vote as early as next week, the law would end same-day registration, eliminate the straight-ticket voting option on ballots, and require voters to present a state-issued photo ID at the polls.

This last provision -- which includes strict guidelines as to what constitutes acceptable identification -- puts Wisconsin in league with more than two dozen other states where Republican lawmakers are pushing voter-ID bills that they claim address the phantom menace of "voter fraud." It has also fueled allegations that Gov. Scott Walker is less concerned with sound policy than with weakening the political power of key Democratic constituencies.

The bill's main author and sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeff Stone, claims that the proposed law reflects his party's concern for the "integrity" of the voting process. But critics of the bill in Wisconsin and around the country point to evidence that voter-ID legislation is a solution in search of a problem. Cases of voter fraud of the sort addressed by Stone's bill are roughly on par with instances of people being struck by lightning, according to research conducted by Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Barnard College and the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud.

The true purpose of such bills, says a growing chorus of critics, is the stealth disenfranchisement of poor, elderly, student, and minority voters. The fact that these groups include important Democratic constituencies does much to explain the party-line support for voter-ID bills in Wisconsin and around the country. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that more than half of black male Wisconsinites do not have a state-issued photo ID. (This number rises to nearly 80 percent among those aged 18-24.) The same is true of nearly a fifth of the state's white population and nearly half of its Latino residents, with the numbers rising sharply after age 65.

The ID cards provided by the University of Wisconsin, meanwhile, do not meet the Wisconsin bill's requirements for student identification. "There's no question this bill would greatly impact youth access to the ballot box," says Matt Guidry of the United Council of UW Students, which has been active in opposing voter-ID measures. Last week, the group organized a day of action at the statehouse.

The Wisconsin GOP's decision to fast-track voter ID comes against the backdrop of looming recall elections, which will likely take place this summer and could see an energized Democratic Party retake control of the state Assembly or even the governorship. Local Democrats note that Walker's hostility to voter rights dates back to his days as a county executive. He appears especially eager to get voter-ID passed while he still has a majority. Just hours after he took office as governor, Republicans sent out a memo calling for an end to Election Day registration, which boosts voter turnout and has a reputation (arguably unearned) as a boon to Democrats. The Republican-controlled state Senate passed an initial voter-ID bill earlier this year, with 14 Democrats in absentia protesting the governor's assault on public-sector unions.

Walker's Democratic critics see the voter-ID bill as just one piece of his larger political vision.

"Voter ID is a part of a concerted Republican effort to restrict the vote of those who do not share their vision for a Wisconsin controlled by the corporate special interests, which financed the takeover of state government," says Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, the state's leading online progressive organizing group. "First you take away workers' rights, then you change the laws so that it's hard for them to vote you out of office."

"It's clear when you look at the national picture that the Wisconsin bill is part of a nationwide push to erect barriers to civic participation for people who already have barriers," agrees Democratic state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys. "Voter ID goes along in perfect congruence with the attack on unions. It's another policy priority that has nothing to do with jobs and everything to do with destroying the organizations and weakening the voices of the middle class and the poor."

The current Republican drive for voter ID is part of a broader reversal of the expansion of the franchise over the last half-century. In the decades between the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the right to vote was assured and made accessible to more Americans than ever before. It is a tide that the Republican Party has increasingly sought to turn back.

"The right has been obsessed with NVRA since it was passed and spent the '90s trying to repeal it outright," says Minnite, the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud.

Chandler Davidson, a professor at Rice University who has spent decades studying voting law, sees parallels between the current push for voter ID and the Reconstruction era, in which the language of "progressive reform" often served to disenfranchise blacks and poor whites. "Actually adopted for partisan and racially discriminatory purposes, these [19th-century] laws were often presented as high-minded attacks on fraud,'" Davidson says. "What's happening today is very similar."

The forces shaping the push for voter ID understand well the continuing need to sound "high minded." The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which coaches conservative lawmakers on how to craft and sell business-friendly bills on issues ranging from education to energy, has drawn up model voter-ID legislation that Republican legislators in many states have used as a starting point. (Strangely listed under the Homeland Security section on ALEC's model legislation page, the model bill is called the Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.) A June 2009 article in the organization's monthly magazine, Inside ALEC, offered detailed advice on how Republicans can advocate for voter-ID bills in ways that "broaden the appeal" and reduce the effectiveness of court challenges. At one point, the article explains that states need not "show prior evidence of impersonation fraud" to justify voter-identification amendments. In other words, legislators should proceed with their public cries about voter fraud even when the only fraud in sight is the one staring back at them in the mirror.

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