How Wisconsin Became a Hotbed For Voter Suppression and What Can Be Done About It


Wisconsin State Capitol — Madison, WI

The assault on voting rights in Wisconsin has been devastatingly effective. 

The 2010 elections, which ushered in a ton of Republicans and Tea Party types across the country, ended up being a nightmare for Wisconsin. Since 1999, Democrats had always either had the majority in the state Assembly or state Senate or the governorship. For the two years going into 2010, they held all three. But in 2010, everything turned red and the Republicans gained a trifecta: they had the majorities in both the state Assembly and Senate, and Scott Walker (R) became governor.

The Republicans took aim at voting rights and started making changes right away.

Gerrymandering and Redistricting

Shortly after the 2010 elections, the U.S. government completed the decennial Census and in 2011 gave the states their new demographic statistics. Every state began the process of redrawing the district lines for both the state legislative districts and Congressional districts. In Wisconsin, the state legislature draws the maps and the governor signs them into law (or can veto them.) With the Republicans holding all the power, the state legislature drew maps that were gerrymandered, i.e. highly favorable for themselves, and Scott Walker approved them.

The voters of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit alleging that the maps were an illegal gerrymander. Court cases can take a while but in 2016, a federal court agreed that the Wisconsin state Assembly map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. It went up to the Supreme Court in 2017 but they pushed it back down to a lower court. There is a new trial set for April 2019. (You can read the SCOTUS decision for the case, Gill v. Whitford, HERE.)

One of the tests for unfairness is to look at the popular vote for the two major parties and see if the seats allocated to each party roughly line up with the popular vote. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats got 54% of the total votes but only have 36% of the seats in state legislature. That popular vote translated to the Democrats winning all of the statewide races–Governor, Attorney General, U.S. Senate, Secretary of State, and Treasurer–but only 3 of the 8 U.S. House seats, 6 of 17 state Senate seats, and 36 of 99 state Assembly races.

Other states have been able to take away the power to draw district maps from the state legislature by creating independent redistricting commissions, and have created those via voter-led ballot initiatives or referendums. Unfortunately, Wisconsin doesn’t have an initiative or referendum process, a sad artifact of the 1914 elections.

Voter Registration

In the 1970s, Wisconsin had been a torch-bearer for the expansion of voting rights. In 1975, Wisconsin became the second state to adopt election day registration. The state has also enjoyed high voter turnout for years, for example in 2008, Wisconsin’s turnout was 72.1%.

But in 2011, the Republicans were in power and they tried to end the practice. At the time, Reince Priebus (yes, Trump’s former Chief of Staff) was the state GOP chair and he argued to eliminate same-day registration so that Wisconsin’s elections “weren’t a zoo” and to protect against voter fraud (which we all know is almost nonexistent.) Thankfully, this effort failed, but the Republicans found other ways to chip away at voter registration.

In 2011, the Republicans required that anyone registering voters had to get certified by the municipal clerk in the city where they lived, which limited the number of people who could help people get registered. Voter registration drives have been an effective way to get low income citizens, African-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans to get registered. Then in 2016, Wisconsin got rid of the program where deputized registrars could help people get registered, by passing a law that created an online registration process.

That was well and good for people who were 1) already in the Wisconsin DMV database and 2) had the ability to get online, but it made it much more difficult for many citizens to get registered. Getting the necessary paperwork scanned and uploaded into the database proved to be quite onerous. It became clear that the 2016 law was a targeted tactic to limit registrations from that group of citizens. The League of Women Voters had hoped it was an oversight in the bill and tried to get it corrected before the final passage, but the Republicans refused. (Source.)

Early Voting

In 2014, the Republicans in the state legislature cut the number of days and length of time that early voting was available. Thankfully, that decision ended up in the courts where a federal judge ruled against the GOP, noting that the effort was clearly discriminating against people of color. The judge faulted the legislature for trying to “achieve a partisan objective” by suppressing “the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.” 

Voter ID

Also, in 2011, the GOP-led state legislature passed a very restrictive Voter ID law, which Scott Walker signed. The law made it so that only a narrow list of IDs would be accepted at the polls. The law was blocked by legislation for years and in 2014 was struck down by a judge. Opponents of the law pointed out that over 300,000 eligible voters in Wisconsin lacked the type of IDs that the law required.

But the Republicans kept suing and ultimately won the court case. Part of that ruling, however, required that Wisconsin give IDs to voters who wanted them. The Voter ID law went into effect in 2016. The state did NOT help ensure that voters who wanted IDs got them but instead imposed ridiculous barriers to make it even more impossible for them.

In the 2016 presidential election, 91,000 fewer people voted than had in 2012, a stunning turn of events for a state that had previously seen some of the highest turnout percentages in the country. Ari Berman wrote an excellent piece about Wisconsin’s Voter ID law and its devastating effects called Rigged: How Voter Suppression Threw Wisconsin to Trump.

Can anything be done to reverse the damage?

The citizens of Wisconsin voted Tony Evers (D) to become their next governor, so that’s a very good start. At the very least, Evers will be able to veto any gerrymandered maps the state legislature draws in 2021, when the next round of redistricting happens. That said, we should all keep a very close eye on the state legislature, as they continue to push to restrict voting rights. I suspect we’ll be seeing many more bad bills and ensuing legislation out of the state.

What can we do?

  • Stay on top of the latest attempts by the state legislature to curb voting rights. One excellent source of voting rights stories is Stephen Wolf’s Voting Rights Roundup.
  • To keep abreast of the ongoing legislation regarding voting rights in Wisconsin, I recommend keeping an eye on updates from the Brennan Center.
  • The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is focused on getting the right people elected in specific states to make sure the 2021 redistricting is much more competitive. Wisconsin is one of their target states. You can sign up for their updates and help with specific projects by signing up HERE.
  • The League of Women Voters is focused on getting people registered. Get involved with their efforts in Wisconsin.
  • The ACLU of Wisconsin is often in the middle of the legislation regarding voter suppression and voting rights. Become a member and sign up for their updates.
  • Help support organizations that help citizens in Wisconsin get the Voter IDs they need, such as VoteRiders.

If there is a critically important swing state that could hold the keys to a good 2020 election outcome for the Democrats, it would be Wisconsin.

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