Anita Johnson, a community organizer with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, spends her days beating the streets—knocking on doors, visiting senior citizen homes, addressing congregations and other groups about changes in election laws.
In previous months, her days were spent in Madison at the state capitol, testifying, agitating, shaming the General Assembly about the slew of new restrictive voting laws lawmakers were ramming down the electorate’s throat. But, to no avail.
When Wisconsin voters go to the ballot box in August and November they will have to surmount new barriers to voting.
“The climate of voting has changed all over the U.S.—not only in Wisconsin…it’s pretty depressing,” said Johnson, a longtime community activist.
Rep. Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat, agreed with that assessment.
“This is a life and death struggle for voting rights,” she said.
“There have been so many efforts to block the vote here. It is a totally un-American and retrograde situation,” she added. “We hold ourselves up as a beacon of democracy around the world. It’s very embarrassing for people to see these efforts to restrict the vote.”
In the backlash from President Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008 and the Great Recession, Republicans swarmed into governor’s mansions and legislatures throughout the country, including in Wisconsin. And then came the so-called “election integrity” laws—restrictive voter ID rules, abbreviated early voting hours, purging of voter lists and other measures—justified by claims, such as voter fraud, that have little to no basis in fact.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 enacted a new law requiring all voters to have government-issued IDs. But a study by the Brennan Center showed that in the 2004 presidential election, where irregularities led to claims of widespread fraud, only seven substantiated cases (0.0002 percent) of voter fraud were identified—all by persons with felony convictions.
Even so, just this year, lawmakers passed laws that: restrict early voting to the two weeks before Election Day, eliminating weekend hours altogether; allow poll observers and challengers to stand closer — at least 3 feet — away from voters at the polls; allow lobbyists to contribute to campaigns much earlier even as legislators deliberate on issues affecting the lobbyists’ clients; and make residency requirements much harder.
Detractors say it’s all an attempt to rig the system to block certain Democratic voting blocs—minorities, the poor, the young, etc.—from accessing the ballot box, thus ensuring that the GOP remains in power.
“It is really partisan politicians manipulating the election system,” said Leigh Chapman, staff attorney with Advancement Project. “Community groups are fighting back but it’s really difficult when the Legislature is one party and they are controlling the laws and the system.”
Even GOP supporters questioned the motive behind the new voting laws.
State Sen. Dale Shultz (R), speaking on “The Devil’s Advocates” radio program on Madison’s 92.1 FM in March, said the dozens of vote-suppressing bills pushed by his party was based on the “mythology” of voting fraud.
“I began this session thinking that there was some lack of faith in our voting process and we maybe needed to address it. But I have come to the conclusion that this is far less noble,” he said of the GOP-led efforts. He added, “I am not willing to defend them anymore. I’m just not, and I’m embarrassed by this.”
“It’s just, I think, sad when a political party — my political party — has so lost faith in its ideas that it’s pouring all of its energy into election mechanics….
“It ought to be abundantly clear to everybody in this state that there is no massive voter fraud. The only thing that we do have in this state is we have long lines of people who want to vote. And it seems to me that we should be doing everything we can to make it easier, to help these people get their votes counted. And that we should be pitching as political parties our ideas for improving things in the future, rather than mucking around in the mechanics and making it more confrontational at the voting sites and trying to suppress the vote.”
The cuts to early voting and other changes will only exacerbate the problems in the system, voting advocates said.
“It is going to make lines a lot longer on Election Day,” Chapman said, particularly in dense, urban, African-American enclaves like Milwaukee. She added, “And our research has shown that long lines disenfranchises voters.”
Walker’s voter ID law was also placing an undue burden on minorities, seniors and the poor, Chapman said, one of the reasons Advancement Project filed a lawsuit against the measure based on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
More than 300,000 people lack the required government-issued ID and they are disproportionately African American and Latino, Chapman said, citing statistics that show that 50 percent Latinos and African Americans lack the required document compared to 17 percent Whites.
And obtaining an ID is particularly burdensome for African-American seniors such as Lorene Hutchins, a 93-year-old who was born at home in Mississippi and never received a birth certificate, which is required for the ID. Hutchins, a litigant in the Advancement Project case, and her relatives spent thousands of dollars and several years trying to navigate a complicated bureaucracy to track down the birth certificate. She died in January.
Despite such evidence, Gov. Walker and his cohorts insist the measure is necessary, and he has threatened to call a special session of the legislature to pass a modified voter ID law before he runs for re-election in November.
Chapman said civil rights organizations and members of the community are fighting back and will continue to fight against such measures through litigation, affirmative voting legislation and other advocacy.
“I think the tide will turn. People know what’s going on and they are fighting back,” she said.
People can also fight back at the ballot box, and Johnson said she is doing her part to empower voters to ensure their votes are counted.
“When all these changes started coming up it was very discouraging,” she said.
“But my job now is to get out into the public to re-educate them about the changes and encourage people to vote. I don’t like it (the laws) but it’s what I have to do.”
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