Wisconsin is one of the highest-performing states in the country when it comes to election administration, but some state Republicans are falling behind a partisan national effort to attack the state's voting procedures and narrow access to the ballot box. "Rig the Vote," a new report from the Center for Media and Democracy and Citizen Action of Wisconsin, examines how proposed changes to Wisconsin's voting practices threaten the state's free and fair elections and are part of a cynical national effort to manipulate the electoral system for partisan gain.
GOP plans would Attack a Highly Successful Election System
For years Wisconsin has been a model for election administration. Pew Charitable Trusts just ranked Wisconsin as one of the highest-performing states in the nation during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, and praised the Dairy State for allowing voters to register at the polls on election day. That practice has helped the state achieve the second-highest voter turnout rate in the nation.
High voter turnout should be celebrated as a sign of a vibrant democracy. Unfortunately, some members of Wisconsin's GOP leadership apparently view the state's consistently high voter participation rate as a "problem" that needs fixing. Indeed, Governor Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) have both voiced support in recent months for ending election day registration -- a push supported by groups like the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.
And the effort to end Wisconsin's successful election day registration program fits into a pattern of changes to the state's voting procedures that would arbitrarily impose unnecessary burdens on certain voters, including the elderly, people of color, and students. These populations tend to not vote for Republicans, but it is a basic tenet of democracy that voters get to choose their politicians, not the other way around.
Enacting Unconstitutional Voter ID Restrictions
The same populations most affected by ending same day registration would have been disproportionately affected by Wisconsin's "voter ID" legislation, which Speaker Vos shepherded into law in 2011.
Wisconsin's bill, like many of those introduced in recent years, echoes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) "model" Voter ID Act -- and Vos is the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin. ALEC took up voter ID as a priority in 2009 (after the election of America's first black president with record turnout from people of color and students), and once the 2010 Republican surge gave the GOP new majorities in statehouses and governor's mansions across the country, ALEC-inspired voter ID bills were introduced in 34 states and became law in 8, including Wisconsin.
Wisconsin's ties with ALEC are strong and go back for decades. One of ALEC's founders was right-wing political activist Paul Weyrich, who was born in the same county Vos represents and famously said: "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people -- they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
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 them. Two Wisconsin judges have since struck down Wisconsin'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 the statistically insignificant problem of voter fraud.
With the voter ID law blocked in part because hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites faced disenfranchisement, Vos might have promoted greater access to ID cards so such a law would not have such a pernicious impact. But instead of taking steps that could help the law pass constitutional muster, Vos is now talking about changing the Wisconsin Constitution to add a voter ID requirement.
Rigging the Electoral College
With Republicans in charge of the Assembly, Senate, and Governor's mansion after the 2010 election, they had the legislative majority to gerrymander congressional maps to their party's benefit during the redistricting process. Now, they are discussing plans to allocate the state's Electoral College votes according to these new Congressional districts, giving the GOP a chance for victory in a state that has elected Democrats in each of the past seven Presidential elections.
During that redistricting process, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin were sharply criticized for developing the maps under a veil of secrecy and shutting the public out of the process, with a court that heard a redistricting challenge describing the process as "shameful," "sharply partisan," and "needlessly secret." By changing the allocation of electoral votes according to these Congressional districts, legislators would be importing all of the problems with the partisan redistricting process into the presidential election.
A change to how Wisconsin allocates its electoral votes is not a Wisconsin solution to a Wisconsin problem. Similar changes have been discussed in states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida -- all states where a majority of residents voted for President Obama, but which are controlled by Republicans at the state level and whose congressional maps were recently gerrymandered to benefit the GOP. If Wisconsin and these other five states had allocated their electoral votes by Congressional district for the 2012 election, Mitt Romney would have won the presidency.
ALEC has also actively lobbied against state plans to implement a national popular vote for president, urging state legislators to preserve the Electoral College -- which GOP legislators are now trying to rig to ensure the next president is a Republican.
The Legislature Should Focus on Jobs, Not Stealing Elections or Limiting Votes
Wisconsinites should be proud that their state has some of the best election practices in the country. But Wisconsin's economy is not a source of pride. Between 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin ranked 42nd out of the 50 states in private sector job creation.
For the voters who are most vulnerable to these sorts of vote rigging schemes, the economic picture is far worse. While the rest of Wisconsin attempts to recover from the Great Recession, African-Americans have been struggling through a Great Depression. The unemployment rate for African-Americans in Wisconsin is 25 percent -- the worst in the nation. When 1 in 4 black residents of our state are excluded from the freedom and dignity that a job provides, legislators should have little time to focus on issues that don't address putting Wisconsinites back to work.
Read the full report here.