Editorial Note: This blog post is written by Andrea Kaminski, Executive Director, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
Did you know the Wisconsin state motto is Forward? Once our state was a “laboratory of democracy” that pioneered worker protection laws, the formation of cooperatives, a state income tax, and bold initiatives to protect our natural resources. Wisconsin also has been a leader in progressive election law, with Same-Day Registration established in 1976, no-excuse absentee voting and a tradition of clean, fair elections. The result has been high citizen participation, with Wisconsin consistently ranking second in the nation for voter turnout.
Yet recently our state motto could be changed to Backward particularly in regards to election law. As part of a national movement to restrict voting rights, the Wisconsin Legislature in 2011 enacted one of the most restrictive voter photo ID requirement in the nation, along with other anti-voter measures. What had Wisconsin voters done to deserve such a law?
The Wisconsin League challenged the ID law based on the suffrage section of our state constitution. With support from the League of Women Voters of the United States, our lawsuit argued that the legislature overreached in adding yet another qualification to vote. Under the voter ID law, a constitutionally qualified citizen who is registered to vote could still be barred from casting a ballot and having it counted.
We were delighted when a circuit court judge in March 2012 agreed with us and blocked the law. More recently we were disappointed when an appeals court reversed the earlier circuit court ruling. Fortunately the law is still blocked by an injunction won in a separate lawsuit. We anticipate that the final ruling will come from our state Supreme Court. In the meantime, the League is proud that no Wisconsin residents were disenfranchised in the November election because of voter ID.
There have been no cases of voter impersonation identified in Wisconsin that could be prevented by voter ID. And voter ID is known to place a heavier burden on certain groups of citizens, including the elderly, the disabled, the poor, students and minorities. That burden was obvious in the calls the League fielded during the eight months the law was in effect, and research has found that more than 300,000 Wisconsin voters lack the form of identification that could be required if this law were to go into effect.
A recent column by the City of Milwaukee’s top election official notes that Wisconsin elections are among the most scrutinized in the country. They have been the subject of local, state and national investigations and consistently rank among the cleanest and best-run elections in the nation. To support this goal, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has worked with other groups to place hundreds of volunteers in the polls as observers in recent elections (and there have been many recent elections in Wisconsin because of recalls). In November 2012 our poll observers found mostly site-specific problems and no evidence of systemic failure.
Yet despite this fact, the legislature continues to churn out election bills to limit voting rights, and the League is responding. Working with other nonpartisan groups, the League opposed a major overhaul that would have made it more difficult for citizens to vote and easier for moneyed interests to influence our elections. Fortunately that bill was amended, with some of the most onerous voting restrictions removed and online voter registration added. Unfortunately, the campaign finance provisions are still pretty bad - doubling the limits for campaign contributions for legislative and other state elected offices, as well as extending the period during which registered lobbyists may make campaign contributions, thereby increasing the potential for conflict of interest for elected officials who are running for re-election.
One thing is clear: We can never take our hard-won citizen rights for granted because there are people who want to take us backward. With a long and distinguished history of advocacy and success in advancing the right to vote, the League of Women Voters is committed to defending voting rights, modernizing voter registration and keeping democracy moving forward!