Wisconsin Special Elections Preview 2012’s Voting Rights Showdown

Millions of black and Latino voters may be turned away from polls in states that have passed or are weighing strict new photo ID rules. Watchdogs say its the culmination of Republican's decade-long effort to manufacture a voter fraud problem.

By Jamilah King Jul 28, 2011

A series of Wisconsin special elections this summer are being watched as testing grounds for how riled up both Democratic and Republican voters will be in a key state for 2012. But voting rights advocates are also watching the elections for early indications of how a rash of stringent voter ID laws that have swept the country this year will play out.

In May, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law what is arguably the country’s most restrictive photo ID bill. Wisconsin was one of 32 states nationwide in which legislators have debated creating more strict voter ID rules in 2011; the bills have passed in six states–Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Voting rights watchdogs say this new slate of laws and bills are of a different scale than those seen in previous years and warn that they will disenfranchise young voters and those of color. Millions of eligible voters don’t have the state-issued photo IDs the bills would require, and opponents of the laws say that the costs of obtaining such IDs could be an unconstitutional poll tax.

"It’s in response to demographic change and record turnout by voters of color in 2008," said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney at Advancement Project, an advocacy group that works on voter issues and published a study in April that reviewed each of the state proposals at the time. "African American turnout nearly matched white turnout in 2008, and you saw upsets in places like North Carolina that took a lot of people by surprise."

Last week, Wisconsin held the first in a series of special elections scheduled for the summer. The votes come in the shadow of Walker’s high-profile move to strip most public employees of collective bargaining rights last spring–an ugly debate that prompted recall campaigns against both Republican and Democratic legislators. The elections have provided voting officials an opportunity for a "soft implementation" of the new voter ID law and a window into how it will work when it takes effect next spring.

The law requires voters to show specific forms of photo identification and sign a poll book before receiving a ballot. Three recall elections took place last week, including ones in Lincoln and Kenosha counties. County clerks from both places told Colorlines that the elections went smoothly, but noted that the new process will take time to run efficiently.

Karen Peters, county clerk for Lincoln County, explained that poll workers were trained to ask for IDs, but did not turn away voters who failed to show one. She said the transition next year will pose unique challenges. "We’re changing all the forms, we have 60,000 envelopes we’ll have to throw away because of wording changes, a lot of training for inspectors," Peters said. "We’re finding a lot of conflict."

But another clerk, who is not in one of the counties that held elections last week, recounted a post-election debrief among officials that identified several concerns about the new law. According to that account, forwarded to Colorlines, the new system significantly slowed the voting process, at least doubling the amount of time each voter spent at the polls. The number of officials required at each polling place is expected to nearly double, and officials are concerned about increased opportunity for frivolous challenges to voters. Meanwhile, some voters were angry about having to sign the poll book; some were so upset that they left the polling place without voting.

The state Department of Civil Rights has identified striking racial disparities in voters who don’t have state-issued drivers licenses or photo IDs, according to the clerk. More than half of all black men and 78 percent of black men aged 18-24 don’t have them. Just under half of Latino men and 59 percent of Latina women are without the IDs as well, as are half of all black women. Conversely, 17 percent of all white men and women don’t have the requisite IDs.

Previous studies have shown a surprising number of eligible voters nationwide don’t have state or federally-issued IDs. Eleven percent of Americans–about 21 million people–don’t have government-issued photo IDs, and the vast majority of them are people of color, senior citizens, and younger voters. The exact numbers are telling: 25 percent of African-Americans–5.5 million people–don’t have IDs, and neither do 15 percent of those earning annual salaries of $35,000 or less, 18 percent of people age 65 and older, and 20 percent of voters age 18-29.

One reason is that photo IDs are sometimes too expensive. On top of the cost of obtaining the ID itself, which can go up to nearly $25, eligible voters often have to provide supplemental materials such as original birth certificates or naturalization papers, which can cost up to $200 to obtain if you’ve lost them. Ironically, 17 states require a photo ID to obtain a birth certificate.

Meanwhile, Walker’s administration is working on to finalize a plan that would close 10 DMV’s across the state–making it even harder for people to obtain state-issued IDs. Business Week reported that the decision of which DMVs to close seems to be based on politics, "with the department targeting offices for closure in Democratic areas and expanding hours for those in Republican districts."

A Manufactured Threat

At the time that Walker signed the new bill into law, he called it "common sense reform" that would go "a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin," according to the Huffington Post

But study after study has found that voter fraud is at best extraordinarily rare. Research has shown that most cases of fraud actually involve benign clerical errors, address changes, or voters’ confusion with the system itself. Voting rights advocates also point out that penalties for fraud already exist. If committed during a federal election, voter fraud draws a possible sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. 

"Fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish way to attempt to win an election," wrote Justin Levitt in a 2007 report by the Brennan Center. It’s more likely that a person will be struck by lightening than commit an act of voter fraud, the report finds. 

That hasn’t stopped Republican legislatures from lobbying for harsher laws. Republicans began promoting the idea of widespread fraud after 2000’s hotly contested presidential election. The Conference of State Legislatures notes that between 2001 and 2010, more than 700 voter identification bills were introduced in 46 states. This year over three dozen states, including Texas, Missouri, North Carolina and Wisconsin have introduced strict voter ID laws.

The Advancement Project’s April study likened the new measures to poll taxes, the Jim Crow-era practice that kept many black voters from the polls and was ruled unconstitutional in 1937.

And it’s a costly endeavor for both individuals and cash-strapped states. For instance, North Carolina already has a $3.7 billion budget shortfall; its proposed photo ID requirement is estimated to cost the state about $20 million to implement. To make matter worse, in order for laws like the one in Wisconsin to hold up in court, states have to be prepared to take on the costs of providing free IDs to residents who are eligible to vote and can’t afford them. 

Lieberman also worries about the training and consistency of poll workers. Currently, local authorities within over 4,500 different election systems oversee more than 20,000 election officials, 700,000 voting machines, and 1.4 million poll workers. "Effective poll worker training is huge," Lieberman notes. "You leave the discretion of the credibility of an ID to a poll worker, whose average age is 72."

Lieberman adds, "If the poll workers say that [the ID] doesn’t look like you, you have no recourse." Voters must then fill out a provisional ballot. 

And that’s far more likely to happen to voters of color than their white counterparts at the polls. A survey conducted by Harvard researchers after the 2006 elections found that 47 percent of white voters were asked for photo ID, compared to 54 percent of Latino voters and 55 percent of African Americans.

"For many people, the burden is simply overwhelming," Lieberman said.