Just How Hard Was It to Vote In Wisconsin?

Last night's Wisconsin recall resulted in more than just Governor Scott Walker's re-election. It also showed the tremendous difficulties some voters in the state faced simply trying to cast their ballot. While Wisconsin has had same-day registration since 2006, which helps more people get to vote, the state passed a controversial photo-ID law last year that put up new barriers. The most stringent part of the law—requiring residents to show a form of photo-ID—is not in effect thanks to a court injunction, but other elements of the law came into play yesterday as new and old voters arrived at their polling places. 

The Election Protection Coalition, a non-partisan group that helps monitor elections, received 1,300 phone calls on Tuesday alone, as well as an more than 500 the previous weekend. "That's remarkable," said the group's lead attorney for Wisconsin, Dara Lindenbaum. (Lindenbaum is employed by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups in the Election Protection coalition.) During the latest state primaries, the group received between 100 and 200 calls, Lindenbaum said, and last night, the group expected less than 650 calls. Like most voting-rights groups, the coalition is non-partisan. "I don't care about the outcome," Lindenbaum said. "I care the voter got to vote."

According to Lindenbaum, the new law created ambiguities, particularly around residency requirements and where people needed to vote. "Forty-five percent of the calls were from people calling to find out where their polling location was," she said. Part of the new voter-ID law that went into effect for the first time yesterday required that voters show proof of 28 days of residence in their voting location. In the past, it was a 10-day requirement and other voters could vouch for one's residency.

The new requirements were particularly difficult for college students, Lindenbaum said, because many have been at home for less than 28 days. The law is particularly complicated for them: Those who voted in 2011 or 2012 at their university had to use that address again unless they could show they'd been home for 28 days. However those who had not voted in 2011 or 2012—or had used their home address instead of their college one—could vote at home. That complication resulted in some college students being wrongly turned away in Waukesha county, Lindenbaum said.

Homeless people also ran into trouble. To show their residency, they had to bring documentation from a shelter, church or other center that would verify they'd been in the area for 28 days.  "We received quite a few calls from homeless people," Lindenbaum said. 

But the legal element was only part of the problem. Then there were the robocalls. Election Protection got calls from around the state complaining about calls that told voters if they had signed a recall petition, they didn't need vote. "It's pretty believable," said Lindenbaum. "People aren't very familiar with recall elections." Deceptive phone calls to suppress voting are illegal in Wisconsin, but so far, nobody knows what group actually pushed the calls.

The Election Coalition will provide the same hotline for other primaries around the country and during the general election will have an even larger field operation in addition to the hotline.


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