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Wisconsin throws up major voter registration hurdle

A new law signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker could make it harder for the poor and minorities to register to vote just as the 2016 election approaches.
Citizens go to the cast their ballots at the South Shore Park building on election day, Nov. 4, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wis. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty)
Citizens go to the cast their ballots at the South Shore Park building on election day, Nov. 4, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wis. 

A bill signed into law last week by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker could make it much harder for the poor and minorities to register to vote in the pivotal swing state just as the 2016 election approaches.

The Republican-backed measure allows Wisconsinites to register to vote online. But voting rights advocates say that step forward is massively outweighed by a provision in the bill whose effect will be to make it nearly impossible to conduct the kind of community voter registration drives that disproportionately help low-income and non-white Wisconsinites to register.

The law won’t affect the upcoming Wisconsin primary on April 5, for which registration has already closed. But it could well curtail voter registration ahead of the general election. And it comes on top of Wisconsin’s voter ID law, among the strictest in the nation, which disproportionately affects the same population. An estimated 300,000 Wisconsinites lack the ID they’ll need to vote.

It’s the latest in a series of laws passed by Walker and the GOP to make voter registration harder—at a time when many states are instead looking to help people get onto the rolls. In 2011, Wisconsin required that anyone registering voters in the state be certified by the municipal clerk of the city where the voter lives. Previously, registrars, known as special registration deputies (SRD), could simply get certified once by the state. Then in 2014, a new rule required those registering to show the registrar documentary proof that they lived where the claimed—a significant burden for those without a driver’s license.

The latest law adds yet another hurdle, by abolishing the SRD program. The bill’s sponsor justified the move by saying that thanks to online voter registration, anyone can help register someone to vote online.

“The creation of online registration empowers everyone to go out into their communities and help citizens register to vote securely with a smartphone or tablet," said state Sen. Devin LeMahieu, the bill's sponsor. "Registering people to vote will no longer be limited to those deputized and trained by a municipal clerk.”

But in practice, it means anyone registering to vote who isn’t already in the DMV database must provide a copy of their documentary proof of residence, since the SRDs no longer exist to verify it themselves. So if groups like the League of Women Voters want to conduct registration drives and register anyone without a driver’s license, they’ll now need to take a picture of the applicant’s proof of residence, print it out, and mail it in with the voter registration form.   

“They’re just chipping away at our ability to do what we’ve always done,” said Andrea Kaminski of the Wisconsin chapter of the League of Women Voters, which frequently conducts community voter registration drives.

Kaminski said her group hasn’t yet decided whether or how it will be able to continue the drives. They’re considering organizing a bus tour with a portable scanner, but the whole effort, including hiring staff to run the program, might cost $100,000. “That is a huge hit for us,” she said.

Marissa Liebling, a lawyer with Project Vote, said the new restriction targets exactly the people who will be least able to register online.

“Low-income Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans are all more likely to register through voter registration drives,” she said. “And its these same communities that are more likely to lack a driver’s license or state ID that’s required to access the online registration system.

This wasn’t an oversight, Liebling contends, because her group brought the problem to the attention of Walker and GOP lawmakers and urged them to amend the bill, but they declined.

“It does not seem to be an accident,” she said.

For good measure, the new Wisconsin law also makes it more likely that absentee ballots will be rejected. It says they now must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, where previously they needed only to be postmarked by Election Day. That means mail delays could disenfranchise voters.

The law must go into effect by spring 2017, but Kaminski said she doubts the GOP would have pushed it through if they weren’t planning for it to have an impact on this year’s election. In addition to the presidential race, where Wisconsin could be pivotal, the state also hosts a competitive Senate race.

Restrictions on voter registration can have a major impact. In just the first few months after Florida imposed stringent new rules on groups that conduct registration drives in 2012, it saw a decline of over 80,000 in the number of people who registered to vote. That law was ultimately overturned by a federal court.

Kaminski said her group, too, is mulling legal action. “We’re going to consult with a lawyer and see just what’s what,” she said. “It’s a huge decision.”