Wisconsin Republicans are pushing a bill to end early voting on the weekend. The measure would make it harder for people in the state’s most populous areas to cast a ballot—and it would hit blacks especially hard.
But state Sen. Glenn Grothman, a Republican who is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill, told msnbc it’s already easy enough to vote.
“Between [early voting], mail absentee, and voting the day of election, you know, I mean anybody who can’t vote with all those options, they’ve really got a problem,” he said. “I really don’t think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?”
The measure, which passed the state assembly Thursday, would give municipalities two choices for early voting, known in the state as in-person absentee voting: they could offer it either from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays in the two weeks before an election; or at any time on a weekday, but not to exceed 30 hours per week, again in the two weeks before an election.
That would mean a reduction in early voting hours for the state’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison—which are also its most important Democratic strongholds.
Scott McDonell, the clerk for Dane County, where Madison is located, called the effort a “voter suppression initiative.”
“This is not unintentional,” McDonell told msnbc. “This is part of a whole strategy of limiting the large cities from their ability to vote.”
In 2011, Republicans eliminated early voting on the weekend directly before the election—part of a sweeping voting bill that also included a voter ID provision currently being challenged in court. But they left the weekend before that in place. Last year, around 7,000 voters in Madison and Milwaukee alone took advantage of those two days of voting, according to numbers provided by the election commissions for those cities.
And currently, cities and towns can set their own hours, based on local needs. That’s meant they’ve been able to make game-time decisions to keep polls open during weekdays evenings, if there’s a larger-than-expected number of voters, as Madison did for the 2010 governor’s race, Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl told MSNBC.
In 2012, the city saw more than 1,000 early voters per day, according to Witzel-Behl. She said the reduction in hours, and the loss of flexibility, would make life more difficult for her office -- and for voters.
“We always have voters who let us know that if we hadn’t been open on Saturday, they wouldn’t have been able to come in to cast an absentee ballot,” said Witzel-Behl. “If we are not able to have absentee voting on the weekends, and we’re limited during the week as well, we’re going to be under a significant time crunch to get everybody through the lines.”
While hitting big cities hard, the bill leaves voting practices in small towns largely untouched. Many small towns in Wisconsin let people make appointments to cast their ballots at the local clerk’s house, McDonell explained—something they’ll be able to keep doing.
“What this does is, it leaves in place the ability for the small communities to set their hours in different ways, but it shuts down the big cities from having the ability to do that,” said McDonell.
Grothman said his bill is intended to establish “uniformity” between the large cities and small towns. Since it would be both expensive and unnecessary for small municipalities to increase voting hours, the only fix is to reduce the hours offered by big cities.
“We can have some of these ones that are completely out of control, doing maybe 80 hours a week, we can rein them in,” Grothman said.
Asked why uniformity is important if there’s less demand for early voting in more sparsely populated areas, Grothman was indignant.
“The idea of having one set of rules to apply to one municipality and another set of rules to apply to another goes against equal protection of the laws and is contrary to all our country stands for,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
But scrapping weekend voting will hit African-Americans particularly hard, Rev. Willie Brisco, who leads an alliance of Milwaukee churches, told msnbc.
“A lot of people in our community are working two or three jobs, odd hours, having difficulty with childcare,” said Brisco. “So the weekend and the early voting reaches a lot of those people.”
Brisco said his organization ran a “Souls to the Polls” drive last year, encouraging congregants to vote en masse after church on Sunday.
“We really need our community to stay engaged in the political process, and to be a determining factor,” Brisco said. “And there is a concerted effort to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The measure wasn't the only voting bill that the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Assembly passed Thursday night. On a party-line vote, it also approved a bill that would slightly modify the state's controversial 2011 voter ID law, in an effort to boost its chances of surviving the court challenge that's currently underway. Under the new GOP bill, voters would now be able to cast a ballot without ID—if they signed an affidavit swearing that they couldn't afford ID or had no way of geting their birth certificate.
"This bill says that poor people need to declare their indigency," Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, a Democrat, told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "It's a scarlet letter."