We're Having the Wrong Conversation on Voting Rights in Wisconsin

How about expanding voting rights instead of working to make the process more difficult and confusing?

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Why aren’t we talking about ways to expand voting rights? Photo by Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Last week in Wisconsin, Republicans scored their latest victory in their years-long effort to curtail voting rights, make elections more difficult, and confuse the process just enough to keep some people away from the polls. Discouraging voting through suppressive policies is anti-democracy, plain and simple, and it’s a shame that Republicans across the country keep doing things like this. 

It’s not hard, however, to see what the GOP is really doing. When fewer people go to the polls, Republicans win. They’re trying to win. Voter ID helped suppress an estimated 200,000 votes in the 2016 election, a law Congressman Glenn Grothman said on live television was designed to help elect a Republican president. They won. 

This lawsuit resulting in the decision by Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy to order the state to remove about 234,000 people from voter rolls is the latest chapter in this ongoing saga. This doesn’t mean 234,000 people aren’t going to be able to vote. It doesn’t even mean the majority of these people wouldn’t have likely otherwise had to re-register anyway. And even if they did have to re-register, Wisconsin is one of 21 states to offer same day voter registration.  But enough of the people being removed from voter rolls -- a group that would include outsized proportion of people living in the Democratic strongholds of college campuses, and the cities of Milwaukee and Madison -- are going to be mistakenly purged, or wouldn’t know they’d have to re-register, or have some otherwise nonexistent obstacle be put in between the voter and the polls. 

It’s a war being waged on the margins, and those margins really, really matter.

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In Wisconsin, three of the last five presidential elections were decided by less than 1 percent, with the most recent being decided by less than 23,000 votes. John Kerry won the state in 2004 by less than 12,000 votes. When Al Gore won the state in 2000, his victory was by less than 6,000 votes. The recent gubernatorial race was decided by just 1.1 percent. There’s a reason the state is regarded as perhaps the political center of the country. 

The Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this week also released a study on the impact of voter ID in the 2016 election, which said these requirements both “direct” affect voters who lack the proper identification, but also “indirectly” affect voters who are simply confused about a law that seems intentionally confusing. 

According to the League of Women Voters Wisconsin, one of the groups fighting these voter purges in court, said that in the 2017-2018 election cycle, at least seven percent of the people identified as having moved did not in fact move. If that seven percent was the same in 2020, that’s more than 16,000 people who are going to have a harder time voting in the next election. 

Neil Albrecht, executive director of Milwaukee’s Election Commission, told Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, that, “If our experience is anything like it was back in 2017-2018, where we lost thousands of voters, we’re afraid that history will repeat itself. This will lead to people distrusting election administration in Wisconsin. If people feel like a system is rigged, it has a pretty profound impact on whether or not they feel it’s even worthwhile to participate in an election.”

And for what? For all the talk in recent years over voter fraud (and you know where that’s coming from!), in reality, it’s a non-issue. Turns out the United States of America is actually pretty good at democracy! Perhaps, instead of making it harder for people to vote, we should be making it easier. 


So what are some other policies in place to increase voting?

Same Day Registration: Wisconsin’s same-day registration is a perfect example of a sound policy that makes it easier for people to vote. Seven of the ten highest turnout states in the 2018 election offer same-day registration, with the ability to register at the polls on the day of the election boosting turnout by seven percent, according to a recent report by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project. It’s a terrific policy, and one that all 50 states should adopt. In the Midwest, Indiana and Ohio still do not have same-day registration.

Online Registration: Wisconsin also has online voter registration, available through MyVote Wisconsin. There, you can also check to see if you are indeed registered to vote, or if you have to re-register (for whatever reason). In fact, while you’re here, why don’t you take a quick break to check that if you live in Wisconsin. Here, go

All set? Great. Wisconsin is among 37 states to offer online registration. In the Midwest, Michigan is among the holdouts. 

Early Voting: Another great way to expand voting is to allow for early voting, which is a policy in place in 39 states (and will be in two more by 2022). Early voting is a policy across the Midwest. 

Automatic Voter Registration: Yep, pretty straight forward. If you’re eligible to vote, you’re automatically registered. This is the case in 18 states, but not Wisconsin. It’s a fairly new policy -- California and Oregon became the first two states to enact such policies in 2015. Michigan and Illinois have since implemented automatic registration, but most of the Midwest has not yet made the change.  

Restoring Felon Voting Rights: This is becoming more and more of a spotlight issue in voting rights policy. Different states have different policies on when a felon be able to have their voting rights restored. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lost their right to vote, while in Iowa, convicted felons never regain their right to vote. As of December, in 16 states, voting rights are restored upon the completion of a prison sentence, and in 20 states (including Wisconsin), rights are restored after a full sentence, including prison time, parole and probation. Nationally, an estimated 6.1 million people lost the right to vote through felony disenfranchisement. Wisconsin is home to more than 65,000 disenfranchised felons.The states with the highest rates of felon disenfranchisement are in the southeast, with Florida leading the way with more than 1.6 million people who’ve lost the right to vote.  

Vote By Mail: Most states offer absentee voting by mail, but more and more states are allowing elections to be conducted completely by mail. It’s more cost-effective and can increase turnout. Four states -- Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii -- hold all elections entirely by mail. Other states allow individual counties to make their own decision on whether to conduct elections by mail, some states conduct some, but not all, elections by mail. This has been a voting rights policy that has thus far eluded the Midwest. 

There are surely more to add to this list, but the point is that these are the types of things we should be debating when it comes to election policy. Not how and why to purge voter rolls. We should be debating how to implement automatic voter registration, or how to reverse felony disenfranchisement or whether we should vote by mail. We should be looking to expand our dismal participation rates to bring more people into the democratic process, and certainly not discourage people and create unnecessary obstacles to voting. 

These partisan lawsuits and efforts to disrupt our voting process are dragging our democracy down. Let’s not debate whether or not to purge old voter rolls in a way that could disenfranchise voters. Let’s go the other direction and work toward increasing turnout and clearing away obstacles so that more people can participate in the democratic process and make their voice heard. 

P.S. One more reminder: Go register to vote! Do it now. And vote every time they let you. 

Voting rights policy information from the National Conference of State Legislatures and compiled data from Ballotpedia’s election resources.

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