Wisconsin Legislature follows a nationwide systemic push against voting rights
MINNEAPOLIS, MN: Signage at an early voting center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Republican-led legislatures across the country continue a systematic push to pass laws they claim are aimed at ratcheting up election security. The policy debate over voting rights and election integrity has exploded in state houses, ignited by last year’s contentious elections where more people voted — particularly by absentee and mail-in ballot — than ever before.
“In a backlash to 2020’s historic voter turnout, and under the pretense of responding to baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, state lawmakers have introduced a startling number of bills to curb the vote,” states a report published Thursday April 1, by the Brennan Center for Justice. “As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states. That’s 108 more than the 253 restrictive bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43% increase in little more than a month.” The Brennan Center reports that not only are the bills moving forward, they are starting to become law. Five such bills have already been signed into law and many more have passed at least one chamber.
The bills are arising so rapidly that estimates by national organizations that are tracking the bills, including the Brennan Center report, are low. For example, the report lists five Wisconsin bills (four of them restricting absentee voting), but the total in Wisconsin is already at 14 such bills.
Former President Donald Trump decried the election as fraudulent (even before it had taken place), and he was echoed by federal and statehouse Republicans. Then came the lawsuits focused on swing states including Wisconsin. Even after the lawsuits failed, and nonpartisan watchdogs concluded there was no evidence of fraud, Republican lawmakers continued to peddle disproven “fraud” accusations and many of their constituents believe the election was stolen because they heard it from these leaders.
To wit: Kicking off the 2021 legislative session the first week in January, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos cited “election reform” as one of his top priorities. Repeating a comment that continues to be echoed by other Republican members, he told reporters: “We have to improve the process when literally hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin doubt that the election was held in a way that didn’t have substantial charges of fraud.”
The public questions, stemming from the false rhetoric on fraud, have since been used as the excuse to responded with anti-voter bills. The GOP strategy in many states has shifted to passing new state laws, which proponents say will improve election integrity. However in Wisconsin, Republicans have not diminished their claims of illegalities, in fact they have ramped up partisan fraud-seeking hearings, which opponents have labeled a “witch hunt” and a “sham.” The two most recent invite-only meetings of the election committee focused exclusively on Green Bay.
Wisconsin bills: The ‘six worst’
In Wisconsin, a trove of bills aims to regulate how absentee ballots are delivered, restricts periods of in-person voting and absentee voting, prohibits election clerks from sending absentee ballots en masse, cracks down on when and where ballots can be dropped off, bars officials from providing absentee ballots without request and photo ID on file, and limits who could return ballots for an indefinitely confined voter to just immediate family.
Jay Heck, of Common Cause in Wisconsin, says his group picked out of 14 bills the six the group felt were the worst. More details on why can be found here.
Nationwide, some of the most common voting bills would require government photo identification in order to vote, diminish the ability of many voters to cast absentee ballots, strictly regulate voter registration and incorporate high hurdles for felons to restore their voting rights.
In Wisconsin the focus has been on absentee voting, as the state already has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Voter purges and restrictions on both early voting and registration as well as a measure to change how Electoral College electors are chosen are among the Wisconsin bills. Gov. Tony Evers has made voting rights a priority and would veto much of the crop of GOP bills, so for now no suppression bills are likely to become law.
- SB203 / AB192: This bill would prohibit any individual from helping more than one non-family member return an absentee ballot.
- SB209 / AB177: This bill says that absentee ballot drop boxes must be attached to the building where the office of the clerk is located. Many voters with disabilities who vote absentee are non-drivers and it would reduce the number of drop boxes in highly populated areas.
- SB204 / AB201: This bill would no longer allow voters who are indefinitely confined or who are overseas to receive absentee ballots automatically. Instead, they would need to fill out an absentee ballot request for every election and show an ID. It would also prohibit sending absentee ballot applications en masse, as the state did in 2020 to 2.7 million Wisconsin voters.
- SB205 / AB179: This bill would take away privacy and create burdens on nursing homes by requiring the home’s administrator to notify relatives of the occupants when the special voting deputies will be coming to the facility to assist in the casting of absentee ballots. It also makes it illegal for employees of a retirement home or residential care facility to encourage a resident to vote.
- SB206 / AB180: This bill adds hoops for indefinitely confined voters, including requiring a statement under oath affirming plus requiring a note signed by their doctor or nurse if the voter is under 65. It specifies that an epidemic does not count and kicks people off the indefinitely confined list.
- SB207 / AB173: This bill prohibits anyone who is a member of a political organization or issue advocacy group from being a poll worker when many polls are experiencing shortages already.
Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections that she was confident that all local clerks ran “successful,” and “incredibly accurate” elections last November, even as the committee made accusations of fraud in Green Bay. She added: “And I can also say secure, because we’re the ones that secure the statewide data [and] we have state of the art, trailblazing technology that protects every single Wisconsinite’s data in our state registry.”
Elections experts on the federal level offered similar conclusions. Despite Trump’s claims that the election was rigged and fraudulent, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a broad coalition of top government officials and election experts, assessed the 2020 election as “the most secure in American history.”
Profiles in voter suppression: Georgia and Tennessee
Even in reliably red states, such as Idaho, Iowa and Kansas, where Republicans control both legislative chambers and Trump won in 2020, elected officials have either adopted new laws or are weighing legislation that critics argue will make it more difficult to vote.
In no place is the effort more apparent than in Georgia. With its GOP governor and top election officials coming under fire after voters turned the state blue, the Legislature passed the “Election Integrity Act of 2021.” Not only does the legislation curb absentee access and impose an ID requirement to vote by mail, it went as far as making it illegal to give water and snacks to voters waiting in line. This omnibus voter suppression bill was signed into law last week.
Activists advocating for protecting voter rights say that the new laws will cause a decline in voter participation, which was the case in Tennessee. Shanna Singh Hughey, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank ThinkTennessee, cautions that her state’s experience is proof that occurs.
In 1996, Tennessee ranked No. 10 nationally in voter turnout in the November election. The state dropped to 50th out of 51 states and Washington D.C. in 2016, ahead of only Texas, according to research conducted by Northern Illinois University. Tennessee ranked 44th for percentage turnout in 2018 and 47th in 2020, when the state saw a dramatic jump in turnout to 59.8% of eligible voters, which stakeholders attribute largely to loosening restrictions on who could request an absentee ballot amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether by legislation, through the courts or administrative action by the executive branch, states expanded which voters could ask for an absentee ballot during the pandemic. Tennessee was one of just five states that restricted which voters could request absentee ballots during the pandemic for the November election. Only those with preexisting conditions that made them susceptible to COVID-19 could request ballots. Even with those limitations, the number of voters choosing to mail in their ballots instead of voting in person exploded from 1.8% in 2018 to 12.9% last year.
Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper and a vocal critic of Tennessee’s restrictive voting laws, said the increase in absentee voting, without any evidence of voter fraud as a result, proves the state’s limits on who can request an absentee ballot are too restrictive.
“We saw an expansion of absentee voting, and the boogeyman we’d been told would lead to widespread fraud never emerged,” Quigley said.
The battle over voting laws has been especially heated in Tennessee’s neighbor Georgia, the red state-turned-swing state in 2020. After Democrats won the presidential election and then both U.S. Senate seats in a January runoff, Republican lawmakers filed a string of bills under the “Election Integrity Act of 2021” to pass laws that largely mirror Tennessee.
While Georgia Republicans touted the legislation as an expansion, pointing to permanent absentee drop boxes and an extra weekend voting day, they also imposed an ID requirement to vote by mail among other measures. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the sweeping measure into law last week, with opponents quickly filing suit in federal court in response.
“We know that these laws are all aimed at disenfranchising Black voters and also young voters,” attorney Marc Elias, who along with several Georgia advocacy groups filed suit Thursday, said during an interview on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.” “The role of the courts are to protect fundamental rights when politicians fail them and right now, Republican politicians around the country are failing voters and failing Democracy and we have to turn to the courts.”
Kendra Lee has a unique perspective on the link between Tennessee’s voting laws and the push for such reforms in Georgia. She serves as the policy director at the Tennessee Equity Alliance, a nonprofit organization that seeks to equip citizens with tools and strategies to engage in the civic process and empower them to take action on issues affecting their daily lives. Before her current role, Lee served as a training manager for U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff’s campaign in Georgia.
Lee pointed out that Tennessee has the bandwidth to expand voter registration. After she applied for a handgun carry permit, Lee automatically received voter registration documents with her appropriate information already filled in even though she is already registered to vote. Lee said if the state can provide such documents for handgun permit holders, it should be able to when citizens interact with other state agencies. She said her concern is that other states, especially Georgia, will be following down a similar path as Tennessee.
“We shouldn’t infringe on anything that makes it harder to cast a ballot,” Lee said. “It’s just another hoop to jump through. There’s no rationale behind the very arbitrary law to submit it in 30 days.”
Taking aim at absentee voting
The most bills most frequently being considered are those restricting absentee voting. Republican-led legislatures have set their sights on curbing absentee voting after Trump and GOP leaders bashed the practice of mail-in ballots. According to the 2020 Survey on the Performance of American Elections by MIT Professor Charles Stewart III, nearly 46% of ballots were mail-in or absentee, compared to about 28% of voters who voted in person on Election Day. The balance were voters who cast ballots early in person.
“Most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements,” according to the Brennan Center report. “State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on early voting.”
In Iowa, more than 1,697,000 voters set a record-breaking turnout in the 2020 general election, with over 1 million of those Iowans voting absentee.
“This was an election like no other and everyone stepped up,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said in a November statement. “Record turnout during a pandemic is an amazing achievement and overall, the process went very smoothly in Iowa.”
But on March 8, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a controversial election bill into law, making Iowa one of the first states to pass voting restrictions after the 2020 election. The legislation changes many of the state’s current election laws, including the procedure for requesting and submitting an absentee ballot, a hard cutoff for receiving those ballots and more stringent rules for Iowans who choose to drop off an absentee ballot in person.
Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, predicted that Republicans will continue to push such bills in the name of election integrity, and it will be incumbent on state and federal courts to determine if any of the measures go too far.
“These new voting laws are going to be a real test of the separation of powers, and the checks and balances of our constitutional rights,” Syler said. “You can almost bet that politicians, who oddly enough get to set their own rules for elections, by and large are going to go as far as courts let them. It ultimately will be the courts that stop this or let it continue to go.”
Said Hughey: “I think you see a country wrestling with whether voting is a right or a privilege. Of course we know it’s a right. When you offer people a safe and convenient way to vote, people use it. We had expanded access to absentee ballots. We had the system that allowed eligible Tennesseans to cast their ballots in a way that is safe and secure. We know that’s what people want.”
Democrats wanting to expand voting rights and Republicans wanting to enforce stricter rules that in some cases makes voting more difficult is a longstanding dispute, he said.
“It’s always been an ongoing cause of friction between the two parties,” Syler said. “I don’t know that it’s ever been as strong a difference as there is right now. All the efforts we’re seeing in 2021 by Republicans trying to pass new laws limiting some types of voting, is a direct result of the polarization that we’ve experienced in the country. And it’s largely a result of Donald Trump’s false claims that he was cheated out of the election.”
Syler said he believes that Republicans, even in safely red states, are pushing such bills to be able to show conservative voters they are seeking to address an issue that Trump singled out as important.
“We tend to live in districts now that are either red or blue, and most of those districts are decided in party primaries,’’ he said. “The Republicans, many of them, live in red districts where really all they worry about is a primary. And they know the vast majority of Republican primary voters believe that Donald Trump was somehow cheated out of the presidential election. So a lot of these bills are in response to that. It’s generally easy red meat.”
Voter ID law limits turnout
In Tennessee, Quigley frequently gives a powerpoint presentation to civic groups mapping out what she calls an attack on voting rights. The battle ramped up when Tennessee passed a law requiring voters to present a government-issued ID in order to vote. After it took effect in 2012, the legislature then tightened the law, banning residents from using an out-of-state driver’s license.
At the time, proponents cited election security for the measures which put Tennessee among five states with the strictest ID laws in the country. Any voter without an ID is provided with a provisional ballot and must return within two days with a government ID for their vote to count.
Quigley said the voter ID law disproportionately impacts college students, senior voters and poor voters.
“You have a college student at Vanderbilt who has a license from Michigan or whichever state, and you’re effectively taking away their ability to vote by putting up this loophole about which ID is OK to use,” Quigley said.
Quigley has been especially critical of a component of Tennessee’s ID law that requires any voter seeking an absentee ballot to have voted in person, and shown their government issued ID, or made a special trip to the election commission to provide the ID. She said that law demonstrates the arbitrary hurdles that made absentee voting especially difficult amid the pandemic.
Good news on voting rights
In response to Republican-backed legislation, Democrats in Congress have kicked off President Joe Biden’s term with a push for sweeping election reforms under the For the People Act.
The bill, which has passed the House but doesn’t have the bipartisan support necessary to clear the Senate, would implement automatic voter registration, restore felons’ voting rights, prohibit voter roll purges and allow voters to sign affidavits, under penalty of perjury, attesting to their identities in the event they do not have a government issued identification.
Some states, although not yet Wisconsin, have introduced nonbinding resolutions to oppose the For the People Act, notes the Brennan report.
Democrats are committed to the legislation and have even pondered altering Senate filibuster rules so that it could pass with less than the 60 votes it currently needs.
And at the state level, there are more bills looking to expand voting rights than those to restrict them. Brennan tallied 843 such bills with expansive provisions that have been introduced, also in 47 states, an increase from 704 bills as of mid-February. Nine of those bills have been signed into law and 112 bills are moving forward in legislatures. Although Wisconsin legislative Democrats have introduced such bills, all are sitting in committees without any public hearing and are extremely unlikely to move forward.
More than a third of the expansive bills address absentee voting, while more than a fifth seek to ease voter registration. State lawmakers are also focusing on expanding access to early voting and restoring voting rights to people with past convictions.
Reporters Katie Akin of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Ricardo Lopez of the Minnesota Reformer, John McCosh of the Georgia Recorder, Faith Miller of Colorado Newsline and Noah Taborda of the Kansas Reflector contributed to this report.
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