March 20, 2013

Milwaukee Courier

Legislatively Speaking: The Wisconsin Voting Rights Act!

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

The GOP is at it again.  There’s another new bill to restrict the ability of people to cast votes in a more easily accessible and efficient manner.  This bill, AB 54, restricts local municipalities from opening on weekends to accept absentee ballots.  Let me say clearly, we need more voting access, not less!

Working in conjunction with Representative Leon Young, I plan to introduce the Wisconsin Voting Rights Act in the Senate later this session. Since our states founding in 1848, we have been a beacon of progressive values and civil rights. And while some individuals in the legislature and governors office seek to implement more restrictive voting practices, my colleagues and I believe that encouraging civic participation and increasing voting accessibility will fortify democracy in our state rather than diminish it.

Expanding voting rights in Wisconsin means strengthening our democracy by following one of the basic tenets of our state; every person deserves the right to vote. Our constitution is the singular state constitution that preserves in writing this inalienable right. Article III, Section I states that “Every United State Citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district.” Instead of placing hoops in front of potential voters, the Wisconsin Voting Rights Act would help to guarantee that those who are eligible to vote have the undeniable right to do so.

Our bill addresses the key points of current voting and election practices to level the playing field for all voters and help return legitimacy to the process. Updating our own statutes to meet a changing and modern nation and drawing on statutes from other states that have seen high levels of success, the bill comprehensively tackles partisan political tricks, voter discrimination, and barriers to voting.

First, an independent commission for redistricting would be established, consisting of five judges appointed by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board in order to prioritize competitive elections. By removing the state legislature and governor from the process, a map is drawn without the influence of political schemes and tactics designed to give a single party an advantage in the next election.

Our democracy is strongest when more citizens are involved in the process. Our bill encourages voter participation and aims to increase the voter pool by restoring voting rights to individuals under supervision of the corrections department, allowing country residents to vote at any polling place in their city, and creating and online voter registration process. 

Millions of Americans convicted of felonies lose the right to vote while serving their sentence, even after leaving prison while on probation or parole. Under this bill, a person would only lose their right to vote while they are incarcerated, but would retain the right while under extended supervision after being released.

People often are unable to vote due the time commitment or distance from their home, work or school. By allowing a resident of any city to vote at any designated polling place in their city, we would see an increase in turnout by allowing choice and convenience.  Online voter registration is an easy, inexpensive, and current method to increase access for individuals with busy schedules, no transportation, and the younger more tech savvy generation. In addition to saving money by reducing paper consumption and time spent processing forms, online registration reduces clerical errors that often inadvertently disqualify possible voters.  

Making sure everyone has the chance to vote involves not only increasing access, but ensuring nothing is being done to prevent individuals from casting their ballots.  Wisconsin needs to crack down on persons knowingly deceiving voters and by outlawing voter caging.  Following the Minnesota model, this bill would specifically ban deceptive practices such as distributing misleading or false information about elections and voting intended to confuse, deceive, or intimidate potential voters.  Currently, it is a legal practice for individuals to be disenfranchised through a practice called voter caging. Under this practice, mail is sent to targeted mailing addresses, and then uses any returned mail to disqualify that individual from voting.  There are a number of reasons why mail would be returned other than the intent to commit voter fraud, and disproportionality affects those in military service, students, and those who move frequently.  Outlawing voter caging helps to ensure people aren’t unfairly disqualified.  Finally, this bill aims to reform the process for challenging voter qualification to place the burden on those wishing to disqualify the voter, and put in place more strict measures to eliminate the many frivolous and time consuming challengers. 

The Wisconsin Voting Rights Act is a necessary piece of legislation that ensures the rights set down in our state constituion are applied to all cizitens. Voting is a fundamental right in our state, and instead of implementing laws that make voting problematic and invoke memories of literacy tests and poll taxes during the Jim Crow era, we need to continue to increase access so that every person has an equal opportunity to cast their vote.  Wisconsin is often a leader in developing progressive and unprejudiced law, and I hope that we can be a leader once again by passing comprehensive reform that ensures everyone has the right to vote.