Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The past few days in Wisconsin were made for the 24-hour news cycle.
To start, over the howling protests of their lawyers, bipartisan election officials approved petitions signed by tens of thousands of voters that established special recall elections for three Republican state senators. Then, a circuit judge struck down a controversial new law that would severely curb union bargaining rights, finding that the Senate improperly passed the law without allowing for public comment.
“The right of the people to monitor the people’s business is one of the core principles of democracy,” she admonished.
Finally, in case anyone’s blood pressure remained at normal levels, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to gut the state’s Impartial Justice Act, which provides public funds for judges running for the state’s highest court.
Even worse, the plan is to use the savings – about $1.8 million – toward implementing the new $7 million voter ID law signed by Gov. Scott Walker. Under the plan, all those Wisconsin voters who checked the box on their income tax form designating some of their taxes to fund clean judicial elections will instead see their tax dollars used for an unnecessary ID policy that will make voting in the Badger State more difficult than anywhere else in the country.
Reasonable people can debate the wisdom of voting to oust elected representatives before their terms are up – or the merits of rethinking the rules that govern public-sector unions. But there is no way to defend the one-two move to destroy a crucial safeguard of judicial integrity while burdening the right to vote.
Wisconsin’s Impartial Justice Act was passed to address widespread concerns that justice was for sale. Judicial campaigns were getting increasingly expensive, and candidates were collecting big dollars from businesses and lawyers interested in having a friend in robes.
After fundraising totals in the 2007 election exceeded $2.6 million, three in four Wisconsin voters agreed that campaign contributions influence the judicial decision-making process. All seven members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court endorsed public financing as the only way to preserve the public’s confidence in the state courts system. Reform was vital.
The public financing program is now just in its infancy but already showing signs of success. This year was its first, and both Supreme Court candidates participated. While (as everyone reading probably knows) the election was highly politicized and attracted large amounts of outside spending, both publicly financed candidates were insulated from the partisan fundraising fights. Instead, they ran largely positive campaigns using public funds alone, without the need to beg for money from future litigants. Judicial public financing has been one of the bright spots in Wisconsin’s stormy year.
Cynically, the Legislature’s majority, with no public debate, is now poised to snuff out the Impartial Justice Act. Worse yet, they’re doing so to fund an unnecessary voter-suppression tactic. Requiring voters to show government-issued, photo identification at the polls substantially burdens the right to vote without any tangible benefit to our electoral system. Studies show that as many as 11% of eligible voters nationwide lack photo IDs with their current address – a percentage that is even higher for seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students.
In fact, a 2005 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that more than 175,000 Wisconsinites aged 65 and older lack state-issued IDs; roughly half of the state’s black and Latino men and women do not have state-issued driver’s licenses. Similarly, the state-issued photo IDs given to the UW System’s roughly 182,000 students will not meet the stringent requirements of the new law. Plus, even voters who do possess the right kind of ID may simply forget to bring it on election day – misplacing their right to vote as easily as their car keys.
In addition, it’s expensive. In order for the new law to pass constitutional muster – and it still may not – Wisconsin will have to spend millions of dollars to ensure that photo IDs are free and reasonably accessible to all eligible voters. It will have to spend more still to provide sufficient public education and poll worker training.
Wisconsin elections never will be the same. This double-barreled attack threatens to shove voters out of the electoral process – ceding control of every single branch of government to deep-pocketed special interests. Badger State, beware.