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Early Voting Under Attack in Wisconsin

Given the popularity of early voting among those who vote and those who administer elections, it’s hard to understand why Wisconsin lawmakers are intent on limiting it and throwing up obstacles to the franchise.

  • Jennifer L. Clark
March 14, 2014

It may soon get a lot harder to vote in Wiscon­sin.

State and federal courts are currently delib­er­at­ing the outcome of Wiscon­sin’s enjoined strict photo ID law. Governor Scott Walker this week said he would call a special legis­lat­ive session to modify the law if it’s struck down, so voter ID could be in effect for the Novem­ber 2014 elec­tion. And, this Wednes­day, Senate lead­er­ship muscled through a bill, SB 324, which would cut back on early in-person absentee voting in that state. The meas­ure passed 17–16, with one lone Repub­lican join­ing the state’s Demo­cratic Senat­ors in cast­ing nay votes. If the vote in the Assembly falls along party lines like it did in the Senate, the roll­backs could very well become law. Governor Walker has stated that he is open to insti­tut­ing cutbacks on early voting if the meas­ure reaches his desk.

In Wiscon­sin, all voters who apply may vote absentee in advance of Elec­tion Day, either by mail or in-person at the local muni­cipal clerk’s office. Early in-person absentee voting starts the third Monday before the elec­tion, and is avail­able through the Friday preced­ing Elec­tion Day. The bill passed by the Senate would elim­in­ate early voting on week­ends, and require that all early voting during the week conclude no later than 7 p.m. The bill also proposes a 45-hour weekly cap on early voting. Under the current law, which has no such restric­tions, two communit­ies that are home to nearly 15 percent of the state’s total popu­la­tion and nearly half of the state’s non-white popu­la­tion, Milwau­kee and Madison, offer exten­ded hours to serve more voters.

Cutting back on early voting puts up obstacles to civic parti­cip­a­tion. Voters like it, and they use it. When people can choose to vote on a day and time that does not conflict with work, family care, or other oblig­a­tions, they are more able to wait in lines and under­take the other admin­is­trat­ive costs involved in voting. Over the last three pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, an aver­age of 14 percent of voters in Wiscon­sin cast early ballots. Despite what some lawmakers are doing to make it harder to vote, citizens around the coun­try support increas­ing access to the ballot. For example, a recent Iowa poll found that people there over­whelm­ing believe that ensur­ing every eligible voter gets to cast a ballot outweighs concerns over ineligible voters. And, as the Bren­nan Center found in its compre­hens­ive 2013 study of early voting, it’s also popu­lar with the people who admin­is­ter elec­tions, because it reduces stress on the voting system on Elec­tion Day, leads to shorter lines, and allows for more oppor­tun­ity to discover and correct prob­lems before the polls close.

In produ­cing our report, we looked into which juris­dic­tions have most success­fully imple­men­ted early in-person voting, and were able to distill a set of seven best prac­tices. Wiscon­sin does begin its early voting period a full two weeks before Elec­tion Day, which is one of the iden­ti­fied best prac­tices for admin­is­ter­ing early voting. Another is to offer early voting on week­ends, includ­ing the last week­end before the elec­tion. In fact, in eight of the nine states with the highest early voting turnout in recent elec­tions, juris­dic­tions are required by law to offer early voting on at least one week­end. Not only does current Wiscon­sin law not mandate any week­end hours—in­stead leav­ing that decision up to the indi­vidual juris­dic­tion­s—but under the proposed changes week­end voting would be actively prohib­ited. A third best prac­tice is to offer exten­ded early voting hours during the week outside of busi­ness hours. The bill approved by the Wiscon­sin Senate, conversely, limits how many early voting hours may be offered each week, and like­wise prohib­its even­ing early voting after a certain hour.

Given the popular­ity of early voting among those who vote and those who admin­is­ter elec­tions, it’s hard to under­stand why Wiscon­sin lawmakers are intent on limit­ing early voting systems and throw­ing up more and more obstacles to the fran­chise. Their efforts would be better spent making elec­tions more free, fair, and access­ible for their constitu­ents.

(Photo: Flickr)