As the final votes are tallied, it is becoming clear that Barack Obama won reelection November 6, 2012, with a higher popular vote than Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1980, thanks in part to near-record turnout from young people and people of color. High voter turnout is celebrated in some quarters as a sign of a vibrant democracy, but among Wisconsin's GOP leadership, the state's consistently high voter participation rate is apparently viewed as a "problem" that needs fixing.
With Wisconsin's voter ID law blocked by two judges as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, Governor Scott Walker appeared before a sold-out crowd at the Ronald Reagan Library in Los Angeles on November 19, just weeks after his state reelected President Obama and elected Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, and announced his plan to end Wisconsin's 40-year-old same-day registration law. "States across the country that have same-day registration have real problems," he explained to the crowd.
Same Day Registration Helps Voter Turnout
Those "problems" appear to include high voting rates. Nine states, including Wisconsin, allow voters to register on election day, and these states are among those with the highest turnout in the country. According to a study at George Mason University, the top six turnout states in the 2008 election were Minnesota (where 77.7 percent of all eligible voters cast a ballot), Wisconsin (72.1 percent), New Hampshire (71.1 percent), Maine (70.9 percent), Colorado (70.2 percent) and Iowa (69.7 percent). All but Colorado had election-day registration.
Students, people of color, and the poor are most likely to register on election day -- largely because they are more likely to have moved since the last time they voted -- and would be most affected by eliminating the same-day registration law. Those populations tend to vote for Democrats. In 2008, fifteen percent of all Wisconsin voters (approximately 460,000 people) registered on election day. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city and the state's highest concentration of people of color, 48,000 voters took advantage of same-day registration, helping boost turnout in that city to 87 percent. Wisconsinite and Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan blamed GOP losses on "surprise" turnout "in urban areas."
The same populations most affected by ending same day registration would have been disproportionately impacted by the state's voter ID law. As many as 300,000 people in the state do not have the forms of ID required under the law and would have a difficult time getting one. The law was purportedly designed to curb "voter fraud," but extensive investigations by Republicans and Democrats have found that voter fraud is not a problem in the state. Two Wisconsin judges have struck down the state's voter ID law as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, particularly because on balance, the costs of disenfranchising 300,000 people would not be outweighed by the "benefits" of stopping a problem that does not exist.
Clerks Oppose Walker's Plan
In the past, GOP leaders, including Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, have also made the preposterous claim that same day registration leads to fraud. Walker has not explicitly cited fraud but has proffered a similarly weak justification for ending same-day registration.
"It'd be much better if registration was done in advance of election day," Walker told the California crowd. "It'd be easier for our clerks to handle that."
Wisconsin's clerks disagree. "It would be a logistical nightmare" to end same-day registration, said Dianne Hermann-Brown, the head of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association election communication committee and a former clerks association president. "It will make it more burdensome."
If Wisconsin ends same-day registration, under federal law it will have to begin offering registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles and social welfare agencies, which Hermann-Brown says will lead to inexperienced state officials handling voting issues. The long-time head of the state election system, Kevin Kennedy, said in early 2011 that opponents of same day registration are "not looking at the bureaucratic morass that's now going to be imposed on state agencies and local election officials by having to comply with pre-election requirements to turn DOT (Department of Transportation) workers and social welfare state employees into voter registrars," or the imposition of new federal reporting requirements on those agencies.
Perhaps most importantly, the change would require voters who are not registered at their current address to cast provisional ballots.
Kennedy said in 2011 that eliminating election-day registration would cause the number of provisional ballots to "skyrocket." In Wisconsin, only 211 provisional ballots were cast in 2008, compared with tens of thousands in states that do not allow same-day registration. In close elections, a high number of provisional ballots means the outcome won't be resolved for weeks, and in many cases a voter who casts a provisional ballot does not have their vote counted because of technical errors.
Latest Effort to Roll Back Progressive Initiatives
In the 1970s, Wisconsin was one of the first states in the nation to allow same day registration, a progressive initiative to expand access to the ballot box and reduce burdens on the right to vote. Judging by a voter turnout that consistently rates among the highest in the nation, the law has worked as intended.
If Walker succeeds in eliminating same day registration, it will be only his latest effort to roll back Wisconsin's pioneering progressive traditions. In 1959, Wisconsin was one of the first states to recognize public employees' collective bargaining rights, which Walker famously eliminated in 2011.
Correction: Relying on data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, this article initially stated that Wisconsin enacted same day registration in 1971, but according to the Government Accountability Board, the law was passed in 1975.