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Leaving Wisconsin Voters in the Dark

With millions in outside spending flooding into the state’s recall elections, and new voter ID restrictions, many ask, what’s up with Wisconsin?

  • Erik Opsal
August 8, 2011

Crossposted at WisOpinion.

What’s up with Wisconsin? I’m surprised when I hear that question, seeing as I now live in New York City. As a former Badger, people outside of the state think I have special insight into the mind of Wisconsin’s political class. But just like all of you, I’m dumbfounded.

The past six months have been quite entertaining. Weeks of protests at the state Capitol, a multi-million dollar Supreme Court election and recount, a polarizing drive for a Voter ID bill, and now a series of recall elections that have brought in millions of dollars from outside interest groups. To the rest of the country, Wisconsin is a mad, mad world.

"This is so out of whack from everything we’ve ever seen,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, in an interview with Mother Jones about the recall elections. Approximately $3.75 million was spent on legislative races in 2010. For Tuesday’s recalls, more than $30 million has already poured in, according to McCabe, and that number is likely to rise.

It’s not the candidates spending all this money—it’s outside interest groups, fighting a proxy war over collective bargaining rights, who are keeping voters in the dark. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is largely to blame for this deluge of hidden spending. That decision, and others, opened the floodgates for corporations and unions to spend at will and obscure that spending through so-called “Super PACs.” Without proper laws to bring this spending out of the dark, Wisconsinites don’t know who is trying to sway their vote.

At the same time voters get blasted with outside TV ads, the new Voter ID bill makes it harder for them to vote.

In my four years at UW-Madison, I lived at four different addresses. Each time, I registered at the polls by bringing my proof of residency (a utility bill) and nothing more. I wasn’t trying to subvert the system. I voted in state elections, city elections, and county elections. I even moderated a debate between two County Board candidates. I wasn’t one of these students who came from out of state and voted in Wisconsin without knowing who I was voting for, as some Voter ID advocates claim. I truly engaged with Wisconsin politics.

If I had to get a new driver’s license every time I changed my address, as I would under the current Voter ID bill, would I have been so involved? Probably. But it represents an unnecessary obstacle to voting—the bedrock of our democracy—and one that many Wisconsinites might not choose to overcome, especially the poor or the elderly, who might find it hard to get to the DMV.

This kind of Voter ID requirement disproportionately affects the elderly, minorities, and students. According to a 2005 UW-Milwaukee study, 23 percent of voters over the age of 65 do not have a photo ID, 70 percent of whom are women. Statewide, 55 percent of African American males and 49 percent of African American females do not have a photo ID, compared to 17 percent of white males and females. And for students living in the UWM, Marquette, and UW-Madison dorms, just 3 percent had a photo ID with their current address.

To be sure, we need to do everything we can to protect the integrity of our democracy, including guarding our elections from voter fraud. But modernizing voter registration and tightening election administration procedures furthers this goal much more than measures making it harder to vote.

Protecting this integrity not only requires easing Voter ID restrictions, but also passing new laws requiring disclosure of political spending. After jumping through hoops just to be able to vote, the least we can do for Wisconsin voters is reveal who is spending millions to influence their decision. Without that, the country will be left asking, what’s up with Wisconsin?