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'Desperate times for democracy' in Wisconsin

It's not just voter ID. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP have been fighting to change the state's election rules and reduce the power of Democratic voters.

MADISON, Wisconsin — Alfonzo Noble, a senior at Madison West High School, was excited to vote in this year’s Wisconsin primaries — but his state’s strict voter ID law posed a problem. Without a driver’s license, Noble would need to get a special voter ID card at the DMV, about 45-minutes away by bus. And for that, he’d have to provide his birth certificate, his social security card, proof of his address, and even documentation of his name change after he was adopted.

“I knew from the jump I was gonna need an ID,” said Noble, who is 18 and African-American. “But I didn’t think it was gonna be so hard to get an ID.”

An estimated 300,000 Wisconsinites — disproportionately minorities and students — don’t have one of the limited forms of ID required to vote under the state law, which was signed in 2011 by Gov. Scott Walker. The law was held up in the courts for years, and the presidential primaries are the first major election in which it’s in force. With Wisconsin shaping up to play a potentially pivotal role in November, voting rights advocates fear that the ID measure, which some call the nation’s strictest, could keep large numbers of would-be voters from the polls.

But the law is only part of a broader campaign waged in recent years by Walker and the state’s Republican legislature to change the rules of Wisconsin’s elections and reduce the power of Democratic voters. The campaign's most high-profile battle was over the GOP-backed 2011 law that gravely weakened the state’s public employee union. But, mostly below the radar of the national media, it also has included an array of restrictions on voting, a ruthlessly effective gerrymander, and even the elimination of the widely respected non-partisan board that runs Wisconsin’s elections. The result has been to turn a state once renowned for the integrity and comity of its political culture into perhaps the most bitterly divided place this side of Washington, D.C. — and, say critics of Walker’s administration, to tilt the scales decisively toward the powerful and well-connected and away from ordinary Wisconsinites. 

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“It’s desperate times for democracy in Wisconsin,” said Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive group that has often clashed with Walker and the GOP.

The lawmaker and the Republican Party announced their intention to go after key Democratic constituencies not long after coming to power, when they muscled through a law that ended collective bargaining for public employee unions, striking a major blow against a key source of Democratic money and manpower. The move drew weeks of sit-in protests at the Capitol building in Madison, and round-the-clock national news coverage. It also made Walker a favorite of national-level conservatives as he eyed a presidential run in 2016.

Headaches over voter ID

But once the cameras left town, Walker and the legislature continued their offensive. Two months later, the governor signed the ID bill, saying it was needed to prevent voter fraud — though there’s no evidence that in-person fraud was a problem. Interviews with Wisconsin voters like Noble revealed the range of ways that, with the primaries approaching, the law is turning voting into a major headache for many.

After Steve Pasewicz moved to Racine last year, he never received an updated driver’s license in the mail. A staunch Bernie Sanders supporter, Pasewicz then tried to instead get a special voter ID. But a DMV clerk told him that doing so would remove him from the DMV database, meaning he’d be barred from driving as he looked for a job. In essence, Pasewicz, who is now homeless, faced a choice: Vote or drive. 

“My right to vote in this country is my right,” Pasewicz said. “And now I’m gonna exchange my driving privileges for this right. And it’s hard enough to get a job as it is.”

Then there are the hurdles faced by many students. Some state university IDs are accepted under the law but others aren’t — including those held by the 43,000 students of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, since they don’t include a signature. Hayley Young, a recent grad who’s running to represent a student-heavy Madison district on the county board, said the law has hugely complicated her task. 

“A big part of my campaign has had to be educating students on how to vote,” Young said.

She believes the measure’s authors aimed to make voting harder for Madison students, who are often key to Democratic hopes in the state. “Four-year universities were really targeted in the way that the law was written,” Young said.

Worsening the confusion, Republican lawmakers still haven’t approved funds for a public education campaign about the ID law’s requirements, as the measure called for them to do. Kevin Kennedy, who runs the state’s nonpartisan election board, said that’s left his agency unable to effectively get the word out.

“Obviously if we’re not spending the money, or we don’t have the money to spend, there’s less opportunity for the message to get out,” Kennedy told MSNBC in his Madison office.

Plenty of Wisconsinites who want to vote still seem unsure about exactly what’s needed. Cammi Kangas, a student at a Madison-area technical college, was waiting in line Thursday at the Dane County clerk’s office to register and vote early, holding a slew of documents. Was she confident she’d be allowed to vote? 

“Not really,” Kangas said. “But we’ll see.”

Harder to register and voters in the dark

The ID law isn’t the only voting restriction passed by the GOP in recent years. A series of laws has gradually made it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives, a key tool for registering poor and minority voters. 

First, in 2011, the GOP required anyone registering voters to be certified by the clerk of each municipality where they register people (until then, registrars could just get certified once by the state). Then, a new law required proof of residency when registering, meaning applicants had to make a copy of, say, their utility bill and send that in. Finally, last month, a third law that established online voting also eliminated volunteer registrars entirely. That means groups conducting voter registration drives will now have to find a way to make copies of voters' documents out in the field, since they can no longer vouch for having checked the voter's address as they previously could.

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Ingrid Rothe of the League of Women Voters said her group will have to reassess how and whether it can continue to conduct registration drives. 

“We’re going to have to do some fancy footwork in order to actually get them registered,” Rothe said, adding, “I think the series of changes we’ve seen over the last four or five years have just made it more difficult to vote.”

Walker and the GOP haven’t stopped at voting. Wisconsin’s nonpartisan elections board, known as the Government Accountability Board (GAB), has won widespread praise for its independence and professionalism. But it angered the governor by opening an investigation into allegations that he had run afoul of campaign finance laws in raising money for his 2012 campaign to defeat a recall attempt — a subject that also was probed by a local prosecutor. (The state’s Supreme Court ultimately put a stop to the prosecutor’s probe.)

So in December, not long after Walker called it quits on his failed presidential run, the state abolished the GAB. It will be replaced in June with two new agencies run by political appointees. The new system is likely to give Walker and the GOP a far freer hand on voting and campaign finance issues. Kennedy, the GAB’s director, said the new boards will be far less effective at running elections and enforcing the law.

“There was no cry from the media to make these changes,” Kennedy said. “There was no public clamoring. There was a legislative view: We need to make a change.”

And Kennedy worries that with Wisconsin likely set for a super-high-turnout election in November, there’s not much time for the new system to get its sea legs before being thrust into the crucible.

“I think it’s going to be very challenging for them to get up and running and get up to speed,” he said.

Changing the rules to boost the GOP

Walker and the GOP have also given their party a boost in Washington, D.C. Like Republicans in several other states, they used their control of the 2011 redistricting process to draw congressional and state legislative districts so as to benefit the GOP — a practice known as gerrymandering. As a result, in the 2012 election, Democrats in Wisconsin won just more than 50 percent of all votes for congressional candidates, according to data provided by the group FairVote, but they ended up with just three out of eight congressional seats.

“There is no question — none — that the recent redistricting effort distorted the vote,” Ken Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said at the time. “Nobody takes seriously the notion that the legislative plan for congressional districts wasn’t politically motivated.”

Leaving no stone unturned, Walker and the GOP have also dramatically curtailed the power of Democratic-controlled local governments. In 2008, Milwaukee’s voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to require the city’s employers to provide paid sick leave. But in 2011, the state passed a law barring local governments from passing paid sick leave laws — a strategy known as preemption.

The measure applied retroactively, so it wiped out the Milwaukee law. Republicans argued that employers needed one uniform set of rules to follow across the state. But one paid sick leave supporter called it “an assault on democracy, local control, and working families.” Later that year, at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a top conservative lobbying group, the Wisconsin law was used as a model to help other states pass sick-leave preemption measures.

Wisconsin Republicans have also preempted other moves by local government. They've banned raising the minimum wage. And earlier this year, they barred cities and counties from issuing photo ID cards, and invalidated local IDs as a way to register to vote.

As for the ID law, in the end, both Noble and Pasewicz  were able to get the ID they needed to vote, thanks to a group called Vote Riders that works to obtain IDs for those who need them. Molly McGrath, the group’s Wisconsin coordinator, helped Noble print out the documents he had to show, and gave him a ride to the DMV during his spring break. And she helped Pasewicz straighten things out at the DMV and get his driver’s license card.

Still, McGrath said, “there’s going to be a lot of folks without the right ID, and bringing IDs that don’t count.”

Mary Bottari said it all amounts to a 180-degree shift in the tenor of the state’s politics.

“When I came to Wisconsin many years ago as a young woman from Philadelphia to work in politics, I was shocked at how squeaky clean the government was here,” Bottari said in an interview a few steps from the Capitol building in Madison. “They’ve blown up the entire system that led to that clean government environment. It is a shockingly different town.”