September 5, 2012

A Win for Voter Rights in Wisconsin, Finally

Our partner organization, One Wisconsin Institute, helped convince GAB that voters can use utility bills and bank statements on smartphones to prove residency.

Voting is both our right and our civic responsibility. It is how we shape the future of our communities and hold our elected representatives accountable. Government ought to be doing everything in its power to keep our voting system free, fair and accessible.

For years, that was the case in Wisconsin. Laws like election-day voter registration and absentee voting facilitated fair elections with among the highest rate of participation in the nation.

Unfortunately, our recent history has seen too many politicians trying to manipulate voting rules to try to gain a partisan advantage.

But this week, in a big win for voters, the six judges on the state Government Accountability Board (G.A.B.) unanimously approved a request from the One Wisconsin Institute to formally allow electronic copies of bills to be used to satisfy proof of residency requirements for voting.

The upcoming November election and the purging of individuals who have not voted since the 2008 presidential election means there will very likely be a high volume of voter registration activity in the lead up to and on election day itself.

These eligible voters who must register are required to verify their residence by providing election officials any one of a number of documents, like residential leases, utility bills and bank statements, to verify their current address.

The G.A.B.’s action this week to accept electronic copies of documents does not expand the types that can be used to satisfy the proof of residency requirement. But it does remove an unnecessary hurdle to providing these documents by allowing voters to provide a proof of residency documents in the form in which they received it.

Banks, phone companies and other utilities encourage customers to use electronic banking and billing, meaning these customers, and voters, no longer receive hard copies of their statements or bills. Some banks even levy additional charges on customers wishing to receive paper copies of statements. There are qualified electors in the state today that have never paid a bill or received a bank statement in any other way but online.

Despite the prevalence of electronic billing, based on preliminary research, Wisconsin is the only state to formally allow electronic copies of documents to be used to prove residency for voter registration.

We all care about the integrity of our elections and should expect that every legal voter will take responsibility and meet requirements for voting. But by the same token, the integrity of our elections also means that laws ought not place unnecessary or unneeded hurdles in the way of legal voters exercising their right.

The G.A.B. struck the proper balance this week by ensuring the proof of residence requirement does not unintentionally disenfranchise or unnecessarily create barriers for legal voters. And Wisconsin, for at least one day this week, once again led the way in protecting voter rights and making sure that those that wish to participate in elections can meet the requirements necessary to do so.

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Scot Ross served as Executive Director of One Wisconsin Now & the Institute from 2007 to 2019.

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