GOP Bias Behind Wisconsin Voter Suppression Law Recounted


Shortly after the 2011 massive labor rebellion against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s law crushing public employee rights drew international attention, Republican legislators struck back by limiting the voting rights and electoral power of key elements of Wisconsin’s progressive coalition.

GOP legislators, strongly backed by Walker, rammed through what Common Cause called “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.”

“We saw labor protests of unprecedented size and intensity over limiting their voice as workers,” observed Prof. Frances Fox Piven, long a central figure in fighting for the expansion of the electorate. “And then [protesters] were greeted with a law to limit their power electorally, too.”

However, this week the Republicans’ law to limit the electoral power of progressive constituencies received some major setbacks at a new trial before US District Judge James Peterson, an Obama appointee, looking at the GOP law restricting voting rights. The spectacular testimony of former Republican legislative aide Todd Allbaugh revealed the GOP’s overtly partisan motives and told of Republican senators’ “giddy” response to the prospect of voter suppression in future elections.

The Courthouse News Service headlined its story on the trial, “Start of Wisconsin Voter ID Trial Looks Bad for GOP.”

The trial has considerable implications, not only in Wisconsin, but also among the 33 other states which have enacted various restrictive laws in recent years.

Gathering the most attention was Allbaugh’s account of internal Republican discussions on the voter ID bill. Former Republican legislative staffer Todd Allbaugh, stated he was present when Republican legislators became “giddy” over the prospect of diminishing turnout among strong Democratic constituencies among blacks, Latinos, and college students.

Allbaugh recounted the statements of key Republicans at the closed meeting of GOP senators and staff. State Sen. Mary Lazich said, “‘Hey, we’ve got to think about what this would mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses,” Allbaugh stated. The majority of Milwaukee’s population is black and Latino.

Then-state senator Glenn Grothman—now a US Congressman—was equally explicit at the meeting about the partisan impact of the proposed voting requirements, “‘What I’m concerned about here is winning and that’s what really matters here. ... We better get this done quickly while we have the opportunity.”

Most recently, Grothman expressed optimism that the new voter laws would assist the GOP, stating “Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up and now we have voter ID and I think voter ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well.”

In pushing the bill through in 2011, Republicans had claimed that stiffer voter identification requirements were needed to prevent the problem of “fraud” through “voter impersonation” techniques. The new rules require that eligibility to vote could only be established through a limited set of documents, including drivers’ licenses, passports, and state-issued IDs like those made available at DMV offices.

The GOP-conjured menace of large-scale fraud has turned out to be almost entirely non-existent. As Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly reported, “The only example of voter fraud that the Wisconsin Supreme Court cited …when it upheld a state voter ID law signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) was allegedly committed by a Walker supporter. It was also a type of voter fraud that likely wouldn’t be prevented by the ID law.”

But “fraud” prevention was not the sole component of the Republican legislation. The Republican bill also severely restricted early voting in Milwaukee, a practice popular among black congregations promoting “souls to the polls” efforts — features of the bill obviously designed to hold down turnout.

Democratic opponents of the Republican bill argued during debate that the Republicans’ clear aim was suppressing the vote of likely Democratic voters. They noted that the bill operated to disenfranchise those who lacked the economic resources to own a car and obtain a driver’s license, as well as non-drivers including many elderly and disabled people. A UW-Milwaukee study showed that 23% of elderly Wisconsinites, 59% of Latina women and 78% of African-American men ages 18 to 24 lacked driver’s licenses.

Not only does this illustrate the absence of acceptable ID among a large swath of constituencies that are largely Democratic, but it also suggests the difficulties placed on people without cars getting to Department of Vehicle offices to obtain state IDs.

One Wisconsin Now, one of the groups contesting the voter-suppression law in the current lawsuit, points out that 257,000 voting-age Wisconsinites don’t have a car in their household. Further, just 33 of Wisconsin’s 92 DMV offices are open full-time during business hours. Comedian and social critic John Oliver used his TV show on HBO to point to one DMV office that is open just four days per year.

Along with Allbaugh’s revelations of the Republicans’ motives, the trial is helping to expose the predictable impact of the voting restrictions.

Among the cases which have emerged:

• A voter who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII was turned down for state identification needed for voting because he could not produce his German birth certificate, which was lost in a fire.

• Two black women, who had been born in the Jim Crow-era South literally died awaiting an ID, as the Southern states failed to send them birth certificates in a timely fashion.

After their deaths, State DMV administrator Kristina Boardman sought to label their futile petitions for voting rights as “customer-initiated cancellations.”

At community meetings and through complaints to their state representatives, numerous other blacks born in the segregationist South have reported long delays or non-responses when they wrote to their home states seeking their birth certificates.

The complex and multiple hurdles presented by the law facing Dennis Hatter, a 53-year-old African-American were detailed by Ari Berman writing in The Nation. Hatter had to devote unceasing effort just to find his way through the state’s bureaucratic minefield so that he could vote. As Berman reported, “He wanted to vote in Wisconsin, but his Illinois driver’s license was not accepted under the state’s strict voter-ID law, nor was his veteran’s ID at the time…. It became a bureaucratic nightmare. The DMV rejected Hatten’s application for a free ID because he didn’t have a birth certificate” from Arkansas.

“Hatten was delivered by a French midwife in Arkansas, who spelled his name D’Nette instead of Dennis,” triggering endless problems with the DMV.

But his problems did not end there. Hatter’s effort to vote was still blocked when he went to the polls on April 5 because the address on his state photo ID didn’t match his new residence. Hatter resolved the issue by returning with a utility bill with his name and address on it and was able to cast a ballot.

But even with the persistent help of an experienced voting-rights advocate, “It took six months for him to get a photo ID for voting, two trips to the polls and an hour to vote,” Berman wrote.

Despite the mounting evidence, Assistant Attorney General Clay Kawski defended the voting law to Judge Peterson, stating with a straight face, “Wisconsin elections are fair, easy to navigate and open to all.”

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2016

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