A Wisconsin legislator has managed to bundle nearly all of the excesses associated with dirty elections into a single bill that good government advocates are describing as a "sweeping assault on democracy:" the legislation would try reinstating restrictive voter ID requirements, make it easier for donors to secretly influence elections, expand lobbyist influence, restrict early voting, and make it harder to register, among other measures.
The legislation is "so huge, covers so much ground, and has so many independently controversial parts of it," that it appears "intended to cut-out any public input or to render [that input] meaningless," says Andrea Kaminski, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
Announced on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, and in the midst of the budget-writing process that consumes most state news coverage, the bill from Rep. Jeff Stone (R) seems designed to be rushed-through before the public has a chance to respond.
Eliminates Most Disclosure Requirements
The most troubling provision in the bill, says Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause Wisconsin, is that it "codifies protection [from disclosure] for phony issue ads."
Wisconsin, like most of the country, saw millions spent in the 2012 elections on so-called "issue ads" whose donors skirted disclosure requirements by stopping short of urging viewers to "vote for" or "vote against" a candidate. Because of the "issue ad" loophole, voters do not know how much was actually spent on elections, and most importantly, they don't know where the money came from.
The state elections board issued rules in 2010 to help close the issue ad loophole but has not enforced them, likely fearing a court challenge. "This bill would guarantee they are never enforced and nullify the rule," said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "It would enshrine the issue ad loophole in state law."
Under Rep. Stone's bill, disclosure is only required for communications that explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate -- completely excluding the sham "issue ads" from disclosure requirements.
"Not only are we not going to do anything about phony issue ads, we are going to give further protection" to donors who want to influence elections from the shadows, Heck said.
Recent developments show what a charade this phony "issue ad" loophole really is. The pro-school privatization group American Federation for Children told Wisconsin's elections board it spent only $345,000 on ads on state legislative races in 2012, but told its funders that it spent $2.4 million. The difference between the amount reported and the total actually spent is likely attributable to the issue ad loophole.
Earlier this year, bipartisan legislation was introduced to tighten up this loophole by requiring disclosure whenever "issue ads" mentioning a candidate are run within 60 days of an election. But Stone's bill goes the opposite direction, legitimizing the illicit secrecy that has increasingly marked elections.
Establishes New Voter ID Restrictions
After Governor Scott Walker and a GOP-dominated legislature took power in 2011, Wisconsin was one of several states to pass a law requiring an ID to vote. The law threatened to disenfranchise more than 300,000 voters who did not have the required forms of ID, primarily people of color, students, and the elderly -- voters who had turned out in record numbers just a few years earlier to elect President Obama. Wisconsin's law was subsequently struck down by two separate state courts on grounds that its burdens were too severe and it imposed eligibility requirements beyond those provided by the Wisconsin Constitution.
Rep. Stone's bill is trying to have another bite at the voter suppression apple.
Under the law, voters will still be asked to present an ID, and if they do not have one, they must sign an affidavit swearing not only that they do not have the forms of identification required under the law, but also declaring that they either are too poor to get an ID or cannot gather the necessary documentation.
Heck says he might be able to live with the proposal if it only required voters to "swear under penalty of perjury" they do not have an ID. But requiring a person to declare they are poor so they can vote, he said, is "insulting, humiliating, and demeaning."
The League of Women Voters brought one of the lawsuits against the 2011 voter ID bill, and Kaminski says they are currently reviewing this proposal.
Ends Early Voting on Weekends
In 2008, President Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points, thanks in part to an aggressive "vote early" campaign where one in five voters cast absentee ballots in-person at their County Clerk's office. After Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2010, they cut the number of days and weekends for early voting in half, from one month before the election to just two weeks. Still, in the 2012 elections at least 392,000 people voted early at their clerk's offices, and Obama again won the state by a sizable margin.
Rep. Stone's bill would limit the practice even further, eliminating early voting on the weekends, and during the weekdays, imposing a 6pm cutoff.
This would have a significant impact on working people. Last November in Milwaukee County and other larger counties, voters could cast a ballot until 7pm on weekdays, and between 9am and 5pm on weekends.
Rep. Stone has said that, "A lot of the smaller, rural communities just don't have the capacity to offer those types of extended hours."
But Kaminski disagrees. She notes that limiting the hours for early voting would also make it more difficult for clerks in smaller municipalities in the North, many of whom work as a clerk only part-time and have a full-time day job.
"Cements in place the legalization of corporate election spending"
According to McCabe, the bill also "cements in place the legalization of corporate election spending."
For over a century, Wisconsin law (like federal law) prohibited corporations from making independent expenditures to benefit candidates for state office -- a prohibition that a narrow majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices declared unconstitutional in the 2010 decision Citizens United v. FEC.
Wisconsin's corporate expenditure prohibition stayed on the books after Citizens United but was rendered unenforceable by the decision. But, if the makeup of the Supreme Court's changes and the decision is reversed, or if the growing movement to amend the constitution is successful, the corporate election spending ban would again become enforceable.
Rep. Stone's bill would repeal the corporate independent expenditure ban. As a result, if Citizens United were reversed in the future, Wisconsin would have nothing to fall back on: it would have to pass a new law banning corporate election spending, which could be a daunting task.
Stone, for his part, told the Wisconsin State Journal that this is "basically a free speech issue."
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said that corporations, which are essentially people under their description, are entitled to the same free speech rights," he said.
Facilitates Lobbyist Influence
Another provision would make it easier for lobbyists to exert even more influence over state legislators.
Currently, lobbyists may only make campaign contributions between June 1 and the day of the election, thereby limiting their ability to give money surrounding a key vote. "It is obvious when a lobbyist writes a check while the state budget is getting written, they are hoping for favorable treatment," Heck said.
This bill would expand that window to as soon as a candidate begins circulating nomination papers. "The last thing on earth we need is more influence and more campaign contributions from big interest groups," said McCabe. "I can't see why this is beneficial to the average citizen. Most people aren't represented by lobbyists making $250 per hour," he said. "It just creates another way for powerful interests to forge relationships with legislators and funnel money."
Rejects Ballots Over Technicalities
The bill would also make it easier to reject otherwise valid votes based on technicalities.
In particular, a voter's failure to sign the poll list could amount to their vote not being counted in a recount, although it is not clear how a particular voter's ballot could be identified since Wisconsin has a private ballot.
This proposal is a direct response to last summer's recall elections. After Sen. Van Wanggaard lost his June 2012 recall election, Republicans hyped allegations of voter fraud, pointing specifically at missing signatures in the poll book. The omissions were chalked up to mistakes on the part of poll workers -- it was one of the first elections with the signature requirement -- and the elections board refused to disenfranchise voters based on these errors. Rep. Stone's proposal would change that.
"Why should a voter lose their vote based on the error of a poll worker?" Kaminski said.
The bill would also make it easier to reject ballots in a recount from voters who registered at the polls on election day. Wisconsin is one of just nine states that allow election day registration, which has helped the state achieve one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, but some Republican leaders have grumbled about ending the practice.
Another provision would allow absentee ballots to be rejected if the witness did not separately list their address on the form -- which might be common when one spouse acts as a witness to the other's absentee ballot -- providing yet another way to eliminate otherwise valid votes.
"These provisions are just mean-spirited, and geared at reducing the number of votes," Kaminski said.
Rolls-Back Registration With Electronic Documents
In August of last year, the state elections board adopted a rule allowing voters to demonstrate proof of residency by showing electronic versions of documents like bank statements or phone bills on their laptops, tablets or smart phones. During public hearings on the proposal, the board heard testimony from students and poll workers describing the absurdity of a document being rejected as proof of residency when showed on a screen, but becoming acceptable after being printed on a piece of paper.
"From personal experience, my T-Mobile bill, the copy of the bill you receive in the mail looks exactly like the copy you get by e-mail," Alexander Haas, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student, told the board. "The same with my [Wisconsin Electric] energy bill. An electronic document is more secure than the paper document, because it is password protected and a [Postal Service] mailbox is not."
Wisconsin's statutes say voters must "provide identifying documents" to register, and the board concluded that "documents" referred to the veracity of the residency information rather than whether it was on paper or a screen. By some accounts, Wisconsin was the first state to formally allow electronic documents for registration.
This bill would reverse the board's decision and explicitly prohibit the use of electronic documents for registration purposes.
"We had no complaints from our election observers last year about voters using electronic documents" for registration, Kaminski said. "The only complaints came from those poll watchers" -- such as those trained by True the Vote -- "who wanted to see the documents voters were showing," she said. "But that is not their job."
"If you are interested in the information contained on a document, it should be allowed in any form," Heck said. "But if you are interested in having fewer students cast ballots, this is the way you go."
"Sweeping Assault on Democracy"
"There is no effort to be bipartisan with this bill," Heck said. "It clearly favors the party in power, and it does a lot of things to make campaign finance and election administration a lot worse."
McCabe is more blunt. "It is a sweeping assault on democracy," he said.
This article has been updated.