The Larson Report

Progressive Perspectives from State Senator Chris Larson


Dear neighbor,


I hope you all had a safe and restful Thanksgiving, and that you’re staying healthy as we head into the heart of the holiday season. Last month, I began a 4-part series of newsletters entitled
Democracy in Distress. In case you missed it, Part 1: The Info Wars was about how information is produced and consumed, and the corrosive effect it can have on our politics. In the weeks since it was released, the war of information over phantom election fraud put forward by the President and his allies has only served to strengthen my argument. This week, we shift our focus to voter suppression.

As always, if there’s someone in your life who you think might enjoy hearing from my office from time to time, feel free to share this link so they can subscribe: https://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/07/Larson/news/larson-reports/sign-up/


Part II: Suppression of Opposition

Billboards like this appeared in neighborhoods with large populations of
voters of color in the 2012 election cycle, including the City of Milwaukee


The Problem

If you’ve ever taken a statistics class (and haven’t blocked it out of your mind due to some sort of intense traumatic response - no judgment from me if you have), you probably remembered at least one thing. All else being equal, the more data points you have, the more accurate your results. The same is true of voting. In a democratic system of government, you want as many people as possible to participate. If you are to have any confidence that those elected to public office actually represent the people they mean to serve, consistently high voter turnout is the best way to achieve that.

"Some politicians, on the other hand, aren't necessarily concerned with the will of the people. They have a different incentive - to attain and hold on to power."

Some politicians, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily concerned with the will of the people. They have a different incentive - to attain and hold on to power. In political campaigns, there are three ways to achieve this: persuasion, turnout, and voter suppression. The first two are hallmarks of democracy. You make policy arguments, appeal to voters’ needs and values, and then make sure people who support you come out and vote. The third method is decidedly undemocratic, and is the topic of this newsletter. Sadly, we don’t have to look any further than our own state for glaring (and recent) examples of voter suppression. 

Gerrymandering is a special case of this, but is complex enough that it deserves its own segment (stay tuned for part 4 in this series). Today, we’re going to focus on voter ID requirements, voter roll purges, and other measures designed to make it more difficult to vote in our state.


Voter ID

Currently, if you want to cast your vote in Wisconsin, you must have and present a photo ID from a specific list of allowable options. This is true both for in-person and mail-in voting. The difference is that for mail-in voting you show your ID when requesting your ballot, while for in-person voting you show your ID when casting it. There is a limited exception for indefinitely confined voters, who do not have to show ID to request an absentee ballot. They still must provide proof of residence when registering to vote. This exception is at the heart of President Trump’s attempts to overthrow the results of the election in Wisconsin, despite this rule being written by members of his own party in the Wisconsin legislature just a few years ago.

But wait, you might ask, how is being asked to show ID suppressing the vote? The short answer is that not everyone has a suitable ID card, the paperwork needed to attain one can be burdensome, and the problem voter ID laws seek to solve (people impersonating others to vote illegally) is so exceptionally rare that the monetary expense and burdens to voting they create far outweigh any perceived benefit. What’s more, checking ID at polling places can increase wait times in high-turnout elections, dissuading some from ever getting in line and taking part.


 

 

 


How many people lack the arbitrarily required ID to vote? In 2016, court records held that 300,000 REGISTERED voters (9% of the electorate) lacked an ID card that met Wisconsin’s strict requirements. A Priorities USA study released in 2017 found that Wisconsin’s voter ID law likely disenfranchised 200,000 people in 2016, disproportionately affecting communities of color and democratic-leaning demographics. Donald Trump won that election in Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes.

So maybe a good number of voters were disenfranchised, but they wouldn’t have passed the law if there weren’t voter impersonation occurring, right? Not exactly. While Wisconsin did not publish comprehensive records of voter fraud during this time period, there were only 31 credible voter impersonation claims between 2000 and 2014 in the ENTIRE NATION. That’s out of 1 billion total votes. Wisconsin’s voter ID law went into effect in 2015, one year after the study period.

We’ve now established that voter ID likely disenfranchised tens of thousands in Wisconsin to solve a problem that for all practical purposes did not exist. How much have the taxpayers of Wisconsin paid to do this? According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin spent $1.16 million between 2011 and 2019 to implement the law directly, and saw an 86% reduction in annual ID card revenue after implementing the law. This is because voters were able to request ID cards free of charge if they indicated they were to be used primarily for voting. This amounts to around $2.5 million in lost revenue per year beginning in 2013, according to Department of Transportation (DOT) budget documents.

In short, our state’s voter ID law is harmful, unneeded, and expensive. I voted against it when it was first proposed and I will continue to work to repeal it as long as I am Senator.


The Purge

While certainly not as violent as the popular film series of the same name, attempts to purge the voter rolls in Wisconsin are horrible and reek of voter suppression. In 2015, Wisconsin joined ERIC, an interstate consortium which uses “big data” to create a more accurate voter registration database. If voters are flagged as having possibly moved, they are then periodically mailed a postcard asking them to update their voter registration. In 2017, this resulted in 46,000 voters having their registrations revoked despite not having moved since they last registered to vote.

"In 2017, this resulted in 46,000 voters having their registrations revoked despite not having moved..."

In September of this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard a case seeking to purge roughly 130,000 additional voters flagged by ERIC, who had failed to respond to the postcard notification. This case has yet to be decided. The bottom line is that nobody should have their voter registration revoked simply because some computer thinks they have moved, or they didn’t respond to an unsolicited postcard. In fact, this whole voter purge situation is one of the strongest arguments I’ve yet heard for implementing automatic voter registration in Wisconsin.

But wait a second, purging voters can certainly have consequences, but doesn’t it help stop voter fraud? Much like voter ID, the answer to this is “no.” Since 2016, out of over 12 million votes cast, there were just 238 allegations of voter fraud reported to the Elections Commission, and most of those were likely honest mistakes or clerical errors. Again, Wisconsin has adopted a policy that is in search of a problem.


Other Suppressive Rules

There are other methods to suppress the vote besides what was discussed above, and I can’t go into detail on all of them here. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, here’s just a few of the restrictions Wisconsin has put in place. Since the 2010 election, Wisconsin has:

  1. Implemented one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws
  2. Shortened early voting periods
  3. Purged voter registrations on multiple occasions
  4. Consolidated DMV branches (where voters must go to get IDs for voting)
  5. Held a pandemic election in spring 2020 with drastically reduced polling locations
  6. Lengthened the time a voter must live at their current address before registering to vote
  7. Prohibited emailing or faxing of absentee ballots to voters
  8. Refused to allow absentee ballots received after election day to count, even if ballots were mailed prior to the election
  9. Banned Special Registration Deputies, which helped make voter registration easier for marginalized communities

Individually, these might not seem all that harmful. However, when you add them together, and you realize that all of these measures have been favored by one political party (Republicans) over another (Democrats), you begin to see that the intent of these restrictions was never to ensure free and fair elections, but  to help the party in the majority maintain and expand their power.


What can be done?

What can we do to make voting easier in Wisconsin? In the short term, not a whole lot. Republican leadership has continually argued the existence of widespread voter fraud, while presenting zero evidence. They have continued to propose further voting restrictions nearly every session since they gained control after the 2010 midterms. The aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election in Wisconsin has only served to turbocharge these claims. 

However, we can’t let the unfortunate reality of the present prevent us from imagining a better way forward. To improve access to the vote in Wisconsin and strengthen our democracy, we should pass laws that encourage as many voters as possible to participate. Here’s what we should do:

  1. Implement automatic voter registration
  2. Repeal the arbitrary voter ID requirement
  3. Lengthen early voting periods
  4. Increase the number of polling places in urban and rural areas
  5. Allow ballots mailed by election day to count, even if received afterward
  6. Restrict automatic voter roll purges
  7. Expand the vote to individuals with current felony convictions

Conclusion

Whatever your political beliefs, the right to vote is fundamental to the values of our nation. We need to make it easier to vote, not harder. Our voting system is safe and secure. The Trump administration’s own elections security official declared this the most secure election in our history. We can always make good faith attempts to improve our elections, but our default position should be trying to make sure that anyone who wants to participate is able to do so. Our job as elected officials should be to create policies that reinforce to voters everywhere that their vote matters, and that government can be a positive force in their lives.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of the Larson Report, and that you’ll look forward to the next installment in this series, which will focus on money in politics.

 

In service,

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The Larson Report - Democracy in Distress


 MADISON OFFICE: 20 South, State Capitol
PHONE: (608) 266-7505
FAX: (608) 282-3547
EMAIL: Sen.Larson@legis.wisconsin.gov
U.S. MAIL: P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882
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