By State Senator Julie Lassa
Although Republicans in the state legislature have paid little attention over the past seven years to strengthening our public schools, fixing our roads or getting our state’s economy on track, they have zeroed in on changing our state’s election laws. The majority of these provisions have been aimed at making it harder for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to have a say in their government by voting. A new set of proposals just voted on by the Senate continues this obsession with tampering with our election laws.
It all started in 2011 when Republican lawmakers shamelessly gerrymandered Wisconsin’s legislative and congressional districts to protect their majority. This shady process included Republican legislators taking secrecy oaths, and resulted in Wisconsin districts having some of the worst partisan skew of any in the nation.
Republican legislators then proceeded to pass a flurry of new restrictions to voter registration and voting. They doubled residency requirements and cut back the number of days voters can register before an election. Absentee voting was restricted several times, including the elimination of weekend voting and restrictions on the hours municipal clerks’ offices can be open for early voting. And they passed one of the most restrictive voter identification laws in the country, a measure that may prevent more than 300,000 Wisconsin citizens from exercising their right to vote.
More recently, Republican lawmakers chose to eliminate the Government Accountability Board, the non-partisan agency responsible for enforcing the state’s elections and government ethics laws. This highly-respected agency that served as a model for elections and ethics commissions nationwide was scrapped and replaced with a commission dominated by partisan political appointees – virtually guaranteeing its ineffectiveness.
The latest measure, Senate Bill 295, continues the trend. It eliminates the special registration deputies that now help homebound seniors, people with disabilities, college students and others register to vote. This is a direct attack on groups like the League of Women Voters, whose registration drives help thousands of people have a say in their government. And this change could mean longer lines on Election Day, as more people try to register at the polls.
Several of my colleagues were initially interested in the bill, because it would allow people to register to vote online; but even this turned out to have serious problems. For one thing, only people with valid Wisconsin drivers licenses and Department of Transportation – issued ID cards would be able to use the system, and then only if the cards contained their correct address. Individuals who had moved since they received their license, or those who changed their name when they married, would be out of luck. Moreover, people in low-income and rural areas, where high-speed Internet connections can be hard to find, wouldn’t be able to access the system at all.
The continual upheaval in our elections laws over the past seven years leaves clerks, elections officials, and especially voters, completely confused about what requirements for registration and voting are in effect on any given day. Look for more legal challenges to dispute how and when the new rules go into effect, which will cause even more confusion and taxpayer expense.
Wisconsin has historically seen high voter turnout, especially in fall general elections, and problems with the electoral process have been rare. The constant tampering of Republicans with our election laws can only result in making it harder for people to exercise the most important right they have as citizens of Wisconsin and America – the right to vote. As President Eisenhower said, “The future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter.” That’s the way it should be in a democracy, and we must do everything we can to make sure it stays that way.