By Dara Lindenbaum, Associate Counsel for the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The recent gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin provides a disturbing example of what too many voters in an array of states are likely to face at the polls in November. At the polls, voters were confused about whether they could vote under the new laws, faced under-resourced polling locations, and received deceptive information about whether they could vote.
As always, the Election Protection Coalition was available to assist voters. The coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection coalition. Throughout the day, trained volunteers answered the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline and monitored polling locations across Wisconsin. The hotline received 1,526 calls on Election Day in addition to the 524 received in the preceding, resulting in over 2,000 calls into the Hotline.
We thought that most of the calls into the Hotline would be surrounding the law requiring voters to present government-issued photo ID, which was passed in 2011. The law was not in effect on Election Day due to two separate court injunctions, and although there were instances of poll workers improperly asking voters to present photo ID before voting, the majority of the calls were due to recent changes to the law surrounding the requirements to establish residency in the state of Wisconsin. The new law expanded the amount of time to establish residency from 10 to 28 days and repealed a safeguard that allowed a voter who lacked proof of residency to vote if another voter affirmed their residency. Most disturbing was the fact that these new laws were implemented without an effective voter education campaign to alert voters to the changes to their longstanding and long relied-upon Election Day Registration (EDR) procedures.
College students who had recently left school for the summer and wanted to vote at home felt the brunt of the new changes for Election Day registration. Under the old law, voters had to establish 10 days of residency, but now they must meet a 28-day requirement. For example, Joanna, a student at the University of Madison-Wisconsin had her last day of classes on May 11. If she returned to her parents’ home in Green Bay, she would only have been a resident for 25 days before the election. She could only vote at home if she did not vote at school during the 2011-2012 school year. However, if she did vote at school during the 2011-2012 school year, she would have to return to Madison (2.5 hours away from Green Bay) in order to vote on Tuesday. Are you starting to get the picture?
To be absolutely clear, Election Day Registration (EDR) is not the problem; changing the rules without properly educating voters about their options is. Wisconsin has had statewide EDR since 2006 and numerous municipalities within the state have had EDR since 1976. EDR is a longstanding and long relied-upon procedure for Wisconsin voters and the Election Protection Coalition has never received reports of problems with election-day registration anywhere near this magnitude in any state with EDR.
Instead of wasting time, money and energy erecting barriers to the ballot box, we should increase access to the ballot box for eligible citizens, and criminalize deceptive and intimidating election practices like the reported robocall telling Wisconsin voters that if they signed the Recall petition then they didn’t need to vote on Tuesday. The Lawyers’ Committee will continue to push for automatic, permanent voter registration, combat real voter suppression in the form of deceptive election practices, and educate and protect voters.
Given what we experienced in Wisconsin and what we know is likely to happen in November, Election Protection stands ready to address the issues voters will face and we need your help. In 2012 it is more vital than ever that we educate and empower voters to ensure they are able to cast a ballot this November. You are the key to a successful Election Protection program this year and there are many ways you can get engaged in your community including: signing up to be a legal field volunteer (link below); promoting the 866-OUR-VOTE and 888-VE-Y-VOTA hotlines; understanding the changing election laws in your state and educating voters; connecting to the Election Protection efforts in your state.
We need you to help us ensure that every eligible voter will be able to participate in our democracy in November.