Long before the days of touch screens and state-issued driver’s licenses, incentives were still high for either party to politicize electoral reform in a high-stakes electoral system where 49% doesn’t get you into office. Progressive-era wealthy elites rushed to dismantle Populist voting majorities after the election of 1896. Similarly, Democrats erected rules in response to alleged “voter fraud” committed by black voters in the late 19th century. But it is always the voters who ultimately shoulder the cost of the politicization of electoral reform, as legislators debate political realities instead of factual ones.
As one of only 9 states in the country practicing same-day registration, Wisconsin averages a 10% higher voter turnout and consistently produces more democratic electoral results overall than non-practicing states.
But AB158, a Republican-sponsored bill in the Assembly right now, proposes to do away with same-day registration altogether, invoking the specter of “voter fraud” in Milwaukee in the past 2 presidential elections. A two-month investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that 361 ineligible ex-felons voted in the 2001 election. But even assuming this figure is correct, these 361 votes constitute no more than .002% of all WI voters in that election. And a joint probe launched by Bush administration’s Department of Justice probe and Milwaukee DA’s office produced only 7 convictions in the entire state – all found to be clerical errors. The GOP contends that just because you can’t always prosecute voter fraud doesn’t mean it isn’t rampant. But what’s politically easier: filing a public request for the IDs of 37,000 Milwaukee voters (most of which are poor, black, and vote Democratic) so newspapers can run headlines for two months about unsubstantiated crimes, or legislating electoral reform based on the best research available?
AB158 also seeks to bring WI into full compliance with the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act and the National Voting Rights Act. With regard to HAVA, this means that unregistered voters can cast a provisional ballot that is retroactively verified. However, the post-election verification process requires the voter to appear in person with proper identification the next day, and still creates the same amount of clerical work same-day registration does without lessening the risk of voter “fraud” due to human error. And Wisconsin’s State Voter Registration System (SVRS), our self-defense database against faulty addresses, is only updated after every presidential election. The National Voting Rights Act (popularly known as the Motor Voter Act) lets people register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s license or visit any public assistance office, something WI currently doesn’t allow. But 16-year-olds can’t vote, and according to a 2005 UW-Milwaukee study, half of Wisconsin’s blacks, most of which tend to vote Democratic, don’t have driver’s licenses.
In short, AB158 appears to be tough on voter fraud and expand the number of opportunities Wisconsinites have to register to vote. In practice, it’s a textbook example of the politicization of electoral reform to another party’s advantage.
It may have been a minor hassle on Tuesday to verify I wasn’t a convicted felon in conspiracy with Milwaukee’s poor and dead to give Al Gore another chance. But filling out a form and bringing a piece of mail with me were a small price to pay to participate in democracy. Voters and legislators alike should see through the politics to preserve true “electoral integrity”.