Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Republican Voter Suppression Bill

Cities already have less turnout and lower percent of early voters than rest of state, but bill will cut that even more.

By - Mar 13th, 2014 12:38 pm
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If you were concerned about making sure everyone in the state has a chance to vote, you might want to look at the quaint city of Delafield in Waukesha County, for a fine example. For the 2012 presidential election, it had just 4,975 registered voters. It has one place where voters who want to vote early can do so, and 26.4 percent of those voters, or 1,159 people, appeared in person to do so. There were no reports of any problems for these voters.

Compare this to the city of Milwaukee, which had 66 times more registered voters than Delafield, with a total of 328,202 such voters. You might think Milwaukee would have far more polling places where voters who wanted to vote early could do so, but you would be wrong. By state law, all early voters must appear at one place (the downtown municipal building) to vote early. And they must get there within a limited period of time: in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers cut back the early-voting period from three weeks, including three weekends, to two weeks, including one weekend.

That meant there were often long lines and delays for Milwaukee citizens who wished to vote early. Not surprisingly, the percentage of voters in Milwaukee who showed up to vote early was far lower — less than half the rate — than in Delafield. Just 12.6 percent of registered voters in Milwaukee voted in person early.

This is not an anomaly. State-wide, 16.7 percent of voters showed up to vote early in the 2012 presidential election, according to figures from the Government Accountability Board. Typically the percentage was higher in suburbs and small towns and lower in the state’s big cities. The percent showing up to vote early, according to GAB statistics, was 34.5 percent in Whitefish Bay, 28.2 percent in Menasha, 26.5 percent in Brookfield, 26 percent in Port Washington, 25.8 percent in Oconomowoc and 25.3 percent in New Berlin — all much higher than Milwaukee’s 12.6 percent or Madison’s 12.5 percent.

Madison had 182,859 registered voters for the 2012 presidential race, or 37 times more than Delafield, but by law must handle all in-person early voters at one place. “Madison has even more cramped quarters than Milwaukee,” says Kevin Kennedy, the GAB’s director, who recalls waiting “30 to 45 minutes in line” to vote early. “They do it in the clerk’s office.”

For that matter total voter turnout is also lower in the cities. In Milwaukee 75.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election while 69 percent did in Madison. By contrast the comparable percentage was 85.7 in Menasha, 85.5 in Whitefish Bay, 82.6 in Port Washington, 77.9 in Delafield, 77.6 in Oconomowoc, 75.7 in New Berlin and 74.2 in Brookfield.

Years ago, the agreed-upon, bipartisan goal in this state was to provide access to all who wanted to vote. Today’s Republicans have changed the definition. As Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told the media, GOP lawmakers want to “level the playing field” so that there is the same access to early voting in all municipalities.

That strikes me as an anti-democratic goal, but if that is what’s desired, you would look at these numbers and conclude that a much lower percentage of big city voters are able to vote early, and take measures to bump up their percentage, by allowing cities more places to record early votes or longer hours to do so.

For years, says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the city has pushed the legislature to allow cities to have more places for in-person early voting. “For years we’ve asked for more locations, so you wouldn’t have these bottlenecks and long lines.” But legislators refused.

Instead, GOP lawmakers are about to pass a bill that would end any early voting on weekends and require that it occur only on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., with a total time limit of 45 hours of early voting a week.

Under this time constraint, Barrett notes, given the number of people voting early in Big Bend in 2012, they would have had 47 minutes per person to vote. In Milwaukee you would have a person voting every nine seconds.

That, of course, is impossible, meaning the law will further reduce early voting in Democratic-leaning big cities, cutting it even further below the rate in Republican-leaning suburbs and villages and towns. “This law is all about trying to predetermine the outcome of elections,” Barrett charges. “They’re not trying to fix problems, they are trying to fix the elections.”

Republican lawmakers refused to debate the bill on the floor of the legislature. They did not say why. Might that be because they could not counter the arguments of Democrats?

Republicans, however, were willing to explain their justification to the media, apparently feeling they would be challenged less in that arena. (Hm, that’s something for reporters to think about.)

State Senator Glenn Grothman

State Senator Glenn Grothman

State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), the bill’s sponsor, said larger municipalities such as Milwaukee have the money to keep polls open longer, giving voters in those communities more of a chance to vote. “It’s a matter of uniformity. I don’t know what all the hoopla is over,” he told Reuters.

But as Grothman ought to know, voters in rural and suburban areas vote in higher percentages than in big cities. If his goal is to provide more of a chance to vote, he is proceeding exactly the wrong way.

Fitzgerald noted that rural areas don’t have the clerks that cities do. “It’s difficult for people to turn on Channel 6 in Milwaukee,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “and there’s a shot of someone voting during a time when it’s not available to people in rural areas.”

But Republicans haven’t offered one example of a rural or suburban voter who was not able to vote. Rural areas don’t need the staff of clerks you find in a city like Milwaukee, because these areas may have 50 to 100 to 500 times less voters.

The state Assembly passed a version of this bill that is even more draconian: it would cut early voting to a maximum of 40 hours per week.

Mary Kae Nelson of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County called the bill is a “solution to a non-existent problem,” that would reduce opportunities to cast a ballot for voters who have daytime jobs, daytime classes, elder and child care or frequent travel obligations.

“This is about suppressing the vote for people of color, people with disabilities and for low-income people,” Barrett charged.

Veteran state senator Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) served in the cabinet of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, back when Republicans and Democrats alike believed government should do all it can provide access for people to vote. What’s going on here is quite cynical, he suggested: “If you can’t win them over with policies and ideas and candidates, you suppress their turnout.”

61 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Republican Voter Suppression Bill”

  1. David Ciepluch says:

    First time I voted in 1972 after getting out of the US Army, I just raised my hand for the oath and was off and running to vote. I knew who I was then and where I lived.

    Voter ID is another major related issue. Walker has already stated he will call a special session if the WI Supreme Court upholds the ban that Voter ID is unconstitutional. Evidently, the sleazy Walker already is thinking ahead and probably has an ALEC work-around to screw people out of their voting rights. No expense is spared for a special session so Walker can eek out an election since recent polls show a tie with Burke.

    The entire voter ID issue has been covered before and I would not agree with it at all. My wife just went to renew for her Driver’s License but could not obtain the official ID since she was missing the Marriage Certificate showing her maiden name. So obtaining a real ID is not quite as simple as it sounds even for people with means. The majority of us essentially do not have an official ID unless we were grandfathered somehow. Many people do not have birth certificates especially if they came from rural and out of state locations. Records are also lost due to fires, floods, and hurricanes, and other acts. Obtaining background records can be expensive and very time consuming.

    Voter fraud is a myth. Spend this money on improving the voting apparatus, training, hours of operation, and expanding our rights.

  2. Tom D says:

    What happened to all the older comments? When I click on “<–Older Comments", I just the this page reloaded (with only one comment).

  3. Tom D says:

    Kyle (4:22 pm), I don’t think it was an absentee ballot. I had voted absentee earlier that year and the absentee ballot had two parts: the ballot itself and a special envelope (which the voter had to sign). As I remember it, I never saw or signed an envelope in the Municipal Building.

    Either way, though, it’s not important. What is important is to understand that absentee ballots are not secret ballots and are not a good substitute for early voting.

  4. Bruce Thompson says:

    Yes. The older comments seem to have disappeared.

    Some of those (now missing) comments remind me of Anatole France’s famous statement: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” The point is that apparently equal treatment can result in very disparate effects. Residents of Milwaukee (and Madison) often face much greater challenges in early voting.

    Take distance. According to Google Maps, a resident of the far Northwest in Milwaukee would take 28 minutes by car and almost 2 hours by bus (faster by bike) to get to the Municipal building to vote.

  5. Tom D says:

    Todd (2:12 pm), two weeks (at 40 or 45 hours/week) is not enough time for a single office to process over 36,000 voters (the actual number of Milwaukee early voters in the 2012 general election).

    In November, 2012, the average Milwaukee ward processed 773 voters on election day. (Milwaukee has 325 wards.) Even with so few voters spread over 13 hours, Andy (in his post at 1:52 pm) said he encountered a one-hour line. Now, increase the number of voters 47-fold, but only increase the hours 6- or 7-fold, and then add the complexity of dozens of different ballots, and you see that two weeks (at 40-45 hours/week) simply isn’t enough if Milwaukee is limited to a single, small location.

    And even 36,000 early voters represents a good deal of voter suppression. In Wisconsin (outside of Milwaukee and Madison) 17.4 percent of votes are “early”. If 17.4% of Milwaukeans voted “early”, there would be 50,000 early voters in Milwaukee.

  6. Duncan says:

    While I do find it obvious the Republicans are trying to game the system in their favor, I’m not worked up about this change.

    People should vote on election day, unless impossible to do so. Instead, early voting has become this personal convenience pleasure, and (often small) municipal staffs have to figure ways to deal with high volumes of people not voting on the special day set up to do so.

    In conclusion, get off my lawn.

  7. stacy moss says:

    Or one could go the other way, make it harder to vote all the way around.

    Require a working knowledge of Evolutionary Theory, for example, might raise the level of democracy in what seems like an undemocratic way.

  8. me says:

    Well you got one thing right: the bill will suppress the vote of Republicans. Since Republicans are the ones who go to work, shortening the hours available for them to vote will effectively suppress their vote!

  9. Raul says:

    Tosay’s Wisconsin GOP is an embarassment to their forefathers who defended the institution and spirit of democracy with their blood. Too many are deeply cynical, proudly uninformed, and more than willing to toss the chessboard up in the air if they can’t win fair and square. Sad…

  10. This Side says:

    Only in a dishonest mind would making voting hours uniform in all 72 counties be considered voter suppression.
    Smokes for votes is such a better idea…

  11. Dave Reid says:

    @This Side Because all of those counties have the same population numbers right? Please, this is transparently an attempt to suppress the vote in population dense areas.

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