The broad battle against limiting voting rights

By: and - June 15, 2021 7:00 am
billboard on side of building reads voting rights are human rights

Milwaukee photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Twenty years ago, Dee Her suffered a severe stroke after starting on dialysis. It curtailed her mobility, so she now uses a wheelchair or walker to get around. Then in 2017, shortly after a medically induced coma, the Sun Prairie resident became an indefinitely confined voter. 

She tells her personal story in a matter-of-fact manner, the same way she describes how, for her, voting is already difficult — without any additional obstacles like the ones Republicans are proposing in a raft of bills currently making its way through the Legislature.

These bills would require regular renewal of her indefinitely confined status and necessitate identification being uploaded for every election. They would prevent clerks from curing obvious minor mistakes and place limits on how and where ballots can be returned. They would limit the ability of caregivers in group settings to help voters who need assistance. These hurdles are particularly burdensome when combined with the complicated, expensive transportation needs the process entails for her.

Dee Her

“I vote because I feel like I’m representing a population of citizens that oftentimes doesn’t have a voice or is oftentimes overlooked,” says Her. The message these bills send to her is that “maybe we just shouldn’t vote because we are not capable of getting to the polls.” She is strongly pushing back against that sentiment. “That does not nullify our ability to vote. Our voice matters and as a citizen, it’s a privilege and responsibility for me to vote.”

Her was one of four voters with disabilities who spoke to reporters as part of a virtual panel hosted by the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition, expressing concerns. That group is made up of a number of advocacy groups for people with disabilities.

It is also a part of a building effort in opposition to the bills that is much broader than just the usual voting rights advocates who have focused on voter-suppression measures in the past. 

Cindy Bentley

“To me, it is a civil rights issue that you have a right to vote,” says Cindy Bentley, from Glendale, who leads People First Wisconsin. “I’m just really passionate about voting. Whenever you vote, your voice is heard. In People First we have members that also can’t get to the polls. And so what I’m trying to say [to legislators] is, ‘Please listen, we’re not trying to stop you from voting but you are trying to stop us from voting.’” 

A broader campaign 

On Monday, more than 60 business owners and executives issued a statement opposing the group of bills and called on legislators to vote against them. 

The measures “would create steep barriers to voting, particularly targeting voters with disabilities, elderly voters, and Black and brown communities,” the business group states in an open letter. “Our country has made significant strides throughout history by enacting national standards that enable fair access to the ballot, but these legislators are trying to take us backwards and threaten our democratic system.”

Five days earlier, on Wednesday, a multi-faith group of 88 clergy and religious leaders representing 17 faith traditions announced their collective opposition to the legislation. Participants represented Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious groups.

And since the bills were introduced earlier this year, some of the most energetic opposition has come from advocates in the community of people with disabilities.

“We are asking policymakers to slow down the process, include stakeholders — and instead, consider recommendations for legislation that protects the rights of people with disabilities and older adults, and addresses accessibility barriers, said Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin and a leader in the coalition of advocates that has come together as the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition. The other group taking the lead is the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, and many other groups have participated in speaking at public hearings, hosting webinars and news conferences and spreading the word on the damage they believe these bills could cause for voters with disabilities.

By drawing such a wide range of opponents to the bills, organizers aim to show lawmakers that concern about the legislation is widespread. 

“I think that there’s a sense of urgency — a concern around the strength of our institutions,” said John Florsheim, a Milwaukee executive who signed the business letter, in an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner. “And if you don’t have strong institutions, if you don’t have a democracy that is really for all people, the system doesn’t work.” 

Coalition building

The collection of Republican-authored bills that passed the state Senate on June 9, and which will be voted on in the Assembly Elections committee on Tuesday, has created another umbrella group that includes more than 40 groups that go beyond the traditional collection of organizations that typically focus on voting rights, although all of those groups are also involved in the effort. 

The Wisconsin Voting Rights Coalition formed before these bills were introduced in response to Wisconsin being the first state to hold an in-person election during a pandemic.

The participating organizations wanted to ensure that Wisconsinites had all the information and help they needed to register and vote, particularly given health concerns surrounding in-person voting. In April of 2020, they sent an open letter to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, listing varying ways to help pandemic voters, from mailing ballots to all registered voters automatically to guaranteeing a minimum number of polling locations with a community based on its size. While the state never implemented these measures, the groups have switched gears to fighting against the slew of voter suppression bills.

Members of the Wisconsin Voting Rights Coalition range from expected groups such as All Voting is Local and League of Women Voters (whose primary focus is voting) to groups advocating for communities of color such as Voces de la Frontera, BLOC and the African-American Roundtable. Good government groups including Common Cause, ACLU of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are extremely involved, as are groups representing voters with disabilities, environmentalists, health care, neighborhoods, schools and religious organizations.

After pushing a false narrative of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential elections, Republicans have labeled passing the series of what they label “election reforms” among their top priority for the year, according to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. 

Building on the same theme of fraud, Vos recently approved a group of four Republican representatives taking a trip to observe the Maricopa County, Arizona recount last Saturday. Vos also recently hired former law enforcement officers and an attorney, with Republican ties, to investigate the Wisconsin 2020 presidential election — the latest move designed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of that election, which has been proven to be accurate in court, through multiple canvases, by the Elections Commission and in a recount. 

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Pro-business, pro-voter 

Other groups that became involved more recently to defeat the legislation have their own distinctive reasons for joining the campaign. 

The business letter’s signatories include Milwaukee Bucks vice president Arvind Gopalratnam; the top executives of Weyco Group; Cory Nettles, the former Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce and president of a Milwaukee investment firm; leaders of the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce; the small business advocacy group Main Street Alliance and a cross section of other business owners.

For John Florsheim, business leaders taking a stance opposing the bills was both good citizenship and good for business. Florsheim is chief operating officer of Weyco, which designs and sells shoes under several brand names.

“When you have a strong democracy, it strengthens the economy,” said Florsheim. “You want people to feel that there’s fairness in the process, that there’s not unnecessary barriers set up in the system for the very basis of our democracy, which is the right to vote.”

His brother, Tom Florsheim, Weyco’s chief executive officer, signed as well. “Our feeling is, it’s not a hard call for the business community to take leadership on that,” John Florsheim said. “It shouldn’t be controversial.”

He hopes more people consider how to take down barriers to voting instead of erecting them.

That means, he said, thinking about “where do we want to go for the long term, creating an environment, creating access,” he said, “so you’re making it easier for people to vote — so you’re creating universal access.”

Faith and ‘the right to have your voice heard’

The religious leaders’ statement against the legislation reflects spiritual tenets shared by many traditions.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice addresses a news conference June 9 at which leaders of several religious groups declared their opposition to recent bills in the Wisconsin Legislature restricting voting. Behind her are Rev. Daniel Schultz, left, and Rev. Walter Lanier. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“We believe every person is made in the image of God, and endowed with inherent worth and dignity,” said Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, which circulated the statement with the Wisconsin Council of Churches. “Part of being able to live a life of dignity is the right to have your voice heard in the public square, and have a say in how you are governed, and who you choose to govern you.”

Margulis spoke at the June 9 joint news conference held at S.S. Morris Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Madison to present the statement. Another speaker was the pastor of S.S. Morris, the Rev. Karla Garcia, who in addition to being a minister is also a nurse and works in nursing homes and for home health care providers.

“I cannot tell you how many elderly and disabled citizens that I have assisted in filling out their absentee ballot,” Garcia said. “But because of this bill, it will make it more difficult for voters with a disability or elderly individuals who are confined in their homes or nursing homes or group homes.” The limits on access to the ballot that the legislation would impose are “very oppressive,” Garcia said.

For the Council of Churches, opposing the legislation grows out of its work to encourage churchgoers to participate in civic life and increase voter awareness and participation, said the Rev. Dan Schultz, a United Church of Christ minister.  

“We do this work out of the conviction that the right to vote is grounded in the dignity of every person as made in the image of God, and in the belief that in a just society, all persons must have a voice in the public debates and decisions that impact their lives and the well-being of their communities,” Schultz said.

The actions that municipal clerks undertook in the 2020 elections making absentee voting easier “weren’t just necessary responses to a public health emergency,” he added, but also “helped address long standing barriers that have prevented or discouraged many members of our community from voting.”

“We need to oppose laws that would put obstacles in the way of students, seniors, persons of color, persons with disabilities or persons who live in impoverished communities,” Schultz said. The current group of bills “do exactly that.”

What’s next? 

The current restrictive legislation has sailed through Republican-controlled committees, but Gov. Tony Evers has said he will veto anything that will make it more difficult to vote, which all of the controversial bills arguably will do.

While many of these groups are fighting to stop legislation that will hurt their members, they rarely get to offer ideas of what would actually help their members vote. 

Disability Rights’ Beckert responds eagerly when asked and has a list of suggestions. She wants more training for poll workers that is consistent throughout the state, particularly when it comes to helping voters with disabilities and other accessibility issues. “We find that the training is very minimal compared to other states,” she says. Far too often, voters are told inaccurate information by well-meaning poll workers who have told someone with a disability that unless they can fill out their ballot by themselves, they cannot vote. In fact, the opposite is actually true — they must be provided with any necessary assistance in casting their ballot.

Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office
Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office

Another needed improvement would be more funding to make voting locations accessible, be it adding a ramp or accessible parking — although one of the bills seeks to get rid of private grants to municipalities that need new equipment. Wisconsin is also behind in providing blind or otherwise visually impaired voters with an absentee ballot they can fill out independently and privately.

Accessibility and availability for getting voter identification at the Department of Motor Vehicles is a topic so broad, the group put out an entire report on improvements that could be made there, including automatically registering someone to vote when they get a license or other identification card. 

These are ideas the groups are pitching to Republicans and Democrats alike, and said they have found both groups receptive to some of their ideas.

“We hope that … our policymakers listen to the concerns of people with disabilities and older adults, and decide to put a pause on some of the bills that would advance such extreme changes and create new barriers to voting rights,” says Beckert. “And instead, we’d like to work with them on those issues that we just shared that are priorities for our coalition. We all agree we want elections that are well run and that are secure and have integrity. We also need elections that are accessible and inclusive of our community members.”

Exposing ‘two Americas’

At the faith leaders’ news conference, the Rev. Walter Lanier drew a link between the current batch of restrictive voting bills and the country’s checkered history.

The legislation reflects the nation’s division into “two Americas,” said Lanier, who is senior pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church in Milwaukee and a leader in MICAH, a coalition of Milwaukee congregations advocating for social justice and a member of the coalition.

One of those Americas aspires to a future of freedom and full rights for everyone, he said, and sees voting as “a right” and seeks “to provide access for as many as possible.” The other is rooted in the past, he continued — an America that at its founding embraced slavery and where neither Black men, Native Americans, women nor people without wealth could cast a ballot. 

“There’s a view that voting is a privilege to be guarded and to exclude as many as possible,” said Lanier. That vision, he said, is also what animated the participants in the U.S. Capitol insurrection in January by people “who are willing to kill for the exclusive privilege for the right to vote, and to protect the Big Lie” — the false claim that Donald Trump won the November presidential election rather than Joe Biden.

But, Lanier added, there were also people who braved a trip to the polling place early in the pandemic for the April 7, 2020, election: “Those who were willing to die for the right to vote, who came out in numbers to vote in that election,” he said. 

The state faces a choice, Lanier suggested. 

“Wisconsin now needs to get it right,” he said. “It’s the 21st century — it’s time to move the state forward and to bridge divides, rather than exacerbating them with legislation that both divides communities and threatens the ballot.”

 

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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