August 6, 2015

On anniversary of voting rights act, more work to be done

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Fifty years ago, on August 6, 2015, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to address, in his words, “a clear and simple wrong.” While this landmark anniversary of the Voting Rights Act is something to be celebrated, there are still those out there who want to attack our right to vote.

Just look at what’s happening around the nation. Conservatives will stop at nothing to win elections. In Shelby County, Alabama V. Holder, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gutted the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act. In that decision, Roberts ignored contradictory congressional findings, arguing that discrimination in voting is no longer a problem.

After that ruling, conservatives around the country began changing laws, constricting the right to vote. Some states ended same day voter registration, invalidated student ID cards, gerrymandered districts and, as they did here in Wisconsin, enacted photo ID laws. The photo ID law in Wisconsin will disproportionately impact people of color, senior citizens and college students who don’t have a valid photo ID.

The photo ID for voting debate was a contentious one because, while the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments to the US Constitution outlaw discrimination in voting based on race, sex and age, our Constitution doesn’t explicitly guarantee a person’s right to vote. Governor Scott Walker and conservatives enacted the law despite statistics showing it would disproportionately impact communities of color. Why is Governor Walker so comfortable with disenfranchising people of color? I believe it’s because all along, he had his eye on the Wisconsin presidential primary. 

Photo ID for voting isn’t the only attack on voting we’ve seen. It seems every single election, Milwaukee is ground zero for the fight for electoral equality. Each and every year Republican Party officials and conservative media build up the case that Wisconsin is full of widespread voter fraud. Walker even told the Weekly Standard that “I’ve always thought in this state, close elections, presidential elections, it means you probably have to win with at least 53 percent of the vote to account for fraud. One or two points, potentially.”

So, where’s the proof of this voter fraud? Each election seems to spark investigations. And, while there certainly have been instances of voter fraud, it doesn’t appear to be widespread. There are a few specific examples, including Robert Monroe, a Shorewood health insurance executive, was charged with 13 felonies for fraudulently voting multiple times in five different elections. So who was he voting for? You’ve probably guessed it; Monroe voted for Scott Walker and has even donated money to Republicans.

That’s not the only recent case of voter fraud. There was the case of Herb and Suzanne Gunka in 2008. According to a media account, the Gunka’s were so incensed by radio hype of voter fraud, they each voted twice just to make sure their votes counted. 

While there is no proof of Walker’s one to two percent fraud rate, the real fraud happens in the name of keeping people of color from voting. Take for example the 2002 gubernatorial race when flyers encouraged Black voters to “vote by noon” in an attempt to trick them into believing the polls actually closed by noon.

Then there’s the Republican Party poll watchers who target Black voters. They say they are there to prevent fraud or just to be helpful. Yet, to draw attention to themselves, they all wore matching official-looking green vests, which no doubt intimidated voters.

Finally, take the billboards that seem to pop up in Milwaukee every election. The anonymous billboards usually warn people that voter fraud is a felony, and often show a picture of a person of color behind bars. Take the 2012 billboard sponsors Stephen and Nancy Einhorn, who had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Scott Walker. They placed approximately 85 billboards in Milwaukee. Because we don’t have a pattern of widespread voter fraud in Miwaukee, it seems clear to me the only other reason to target Milwaukee is that our city is the home of the state’s largest population of people of color.

I applaud those who marched in Selma for passage of the Voting Rights Act. They courageously risked their safety so that we may be equal participants in our democracy. However, given a resurgence of attacks on those rights, we must not let anyone intimidate us from voting, whether it’s Governor Scott Walker or one of his donors. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to those who marched in Selma.

Senator Lena Taylor was born and raised in Milwaukee. She has served in the State Legislature since 2003. She lives in Milwaukee with her son in the same neighborhood she grew up in.