GOP Goal Less Access for Democratic Voters
But you have to sift through media coverage of trial testimony for the story.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel still has by far the biggest staff of reporters in the state, but that’s sometimes hard to believe based on its cursory coverage of the issues.
Take the lawsuit before Federal Judge James Peterson and launched by the liberal One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin. They argue that changes in election law by the Republican-led legislature were intentionally done to make it harder for minorities to cast ballots. The photo ID requirement is one such measure, but the suit also points to list of other changes adopted over the past five years.
Those changes include “a reduction in early voting from 30 days before an election to 12 days, the limiting of the hours that voting can take place and the restricting of early voting to one location per municipality,” as an Associated Press story reported, with a clarity I didn’t find in the Journal Sentinel account.
To help rebut the discrimination claims, the state brought testimony from clerks for the cities of Cedarburg and Port Washington, who said the voting laws had generally worked well in their communities. “From the start, we have had virtually no problems at all,” said Waukesha County clerk Kathleen Novack.
But that testimony is a double-edged sword, showing the new rules worked well in heavily white, heavily Republican areas, but leaving the question whether it thus gave them an advantage over urban areas with high minority and Democratic voting patterns. Two elections experts from urban cities testified that this was indeed happening. Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl detailed how the election law changes created delays at polling places and prevented voters from casting ballots. And Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Neil Albrecht testified that in the 2016 presidential primary election the turnout percentage in the city lagged trailed the statewide average by nearly 10 percent, a gap far higher than in 2008, when it was less than two percent.
While the press covered the testimony of the Republican clerks, they didn’t give any coverage of their counterparts from Milwaukee and Madison. Worse, the Journal Sentinel account, which led with the testimony by suburban clerks, didn’t report a choice “gotcha” moment, when Novack testified that weekend voting gave “over-access … to particular parts of the state” and “too much access to the voters as far as opportunities.”
This is someone whose job is make sure all who want to vote do so, and she is arguing against that mission, in favor of reducing access to voting. That’s remarkable. And yet the Journal Sentinel didn’t report this, though the much-smaller-staffed Cap Times did so on on that same day. Yes, the Cap Times is Democratic, liberal-leaning paper, but for a journalist any gotcha moment is something you jump on. So why didn’t JS reporter Jason Stein?
By contrast, the Journal Sentinel did report another revealing moment at the trial, when Judge Peterson expressed serious concern about voters unable to get IDs needed to vote because they lack birth certificates or other key documents. “These people are stuck and stuck hard,” he said. That might betray a judge leaning in favor of the liberal litigants, or may show how powerful was the evidence they presented. Either way, it’s newsworthy, just as the testimony by Novack was.
There was no media coverage of the testimony by elections expert Kenneth Mayer, whose analysis found this: “In 2010, the last statewide election in which late weekend registration was permitted in the 3 days before an election, significantly more people registered over this period in municipalities with higher African American population concentrations. This relationship holds even after removing Milwaukee from the analysis, and controlling for municipality size.”
Nor did the media report the testimony of elections expert Barry Burden, whose comparison of the 2010 and 2014 elections showed the disparity in turnout between blacks and whites grew from 3.8 percentage points in 2010 to 11.3 points in 2014. The disparity between Latinos and whites grew from 17.9 points in 2010 to 28.8 points in 2014.
Novack’s testimony echoed the claims of Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) that reducing early voting hours would “level the playing field” between urban and other areas. But in fact the game was already tilted against big cities. Prior to the law’s passage, the percentage of voters showing up early to vote was much higher in suburbs and small towns: it 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.
As the suburban clerks testified, there were no problems for voters in those areas under the new rules. By contrast, Madison had 182,859 registered voters for the 2012 presidential race, or 37 times more than Delafield, but by law is required to handle all in-person early voters at one place.
The restrictions in hours for early voting, combined with the one-polling-place requirement, meant that people voting early in Big Bend would have 47 minutes per person to vote while in Milwaukee you would have a person voting every nine seconds.
The threadbare justification for reducing access to voting amounts to a confession by Republican leaders that they can’t win an election that provides equal access to all voters. Which in the case of the presidential election, has been true since 1984, for more than three decades.
But in a nation that is rapidly moving to a majority-minority population, the Republicans in this state are sending a message to black and Hispanic voters that they want to do everything possible to make it more difficult for them to vote. In the case of black voters, who were systematically disenfranchised as voters for most of American history, it’s a shockingly ugly strategy. Whatever the short-term payoff, it may make GOP candidates anathema to minority voters for decades to come.