David Michael Miller
Molly McGrath knows a way to get people excited about voting. “Let’s make registering to vote a party,” says McGrath, a voting rights advocate formerly with VoteRiders.
She tested her theory in March while working with Associated Students of Madison to register students. They hosted an evening event at UW-Madison with free pizza and a DJ spinning records. Off to the side were several tables where volunteers registered people to vote and handed out pamphlets on voter ID laws and instructions for first-time voters. In three hours, they registered around 800 UW students.
“When you take out the annoying logistics part of it, there’s a lot of excitement...a lot of energy,” says McGrath.
But Wisconsin has now made these types of drives much more difficult to organize. A new law signed by Gov. Scott Walker in March limits ways that volunteers can help people register. The state will soon be emphasizing an online voter registration system, which will require people to already have approved state IDs.
Critics fear the law will make it impossible to go door-to-door to register voters or set up registration tables in high schools, college campuses or at events like the Farmers’ Market. This could leave thousands of low-income people, students, transients and people of color unable to vote, they fear.
A group of 15 organizations, including the League of Women Voters of the United States, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Project Vote, complained about the proposed changes to its sponsor, Sen. Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), before they were enacted. In a Feb. 9 letter, they argued the proposal “likely violates third-party registration groups’ First Amendment right to help voters register.”
“No other state that has passed online voter registration has tied its passage to such severely restrictive measures on other methods of voter registration,” they wrote. “The interaction of these laws — the elimination of the registration deputies and the documentary proof of residency requirement — spells the effective end of voter registrations drives.”
In proposing the changes, LeMahieu argued that they would modernize and simplify the registration process.
“Senate Bill 295 will create online voter registration, clean up our voter rolls and make a number of other important reforms to modernize Wisconsin’s elections,” he wrote in a March statement, after Walker signed the bill into law. “In addition to making it easier to register, moving to an online system will also cut costs and curb potential for registration errors and fraud.”
What he didn’t mention, however, is that only those with a Wisconsin driver’s license or Department of Transportation ID that also lists their current address will be eligible to register online. For instance, students from Milwaukee who go to UW-Madison for college would not be able to use the online system unless they updated their address through the DMV.
When contacted for comment, a legislative aide for LeMahieu said the senator is “not interested in participating in this story.”
The new law also eliminates a program of “special registration deputies,” trained volunteers who could help residents navigate the complicated registration process. Typically, a deputy could verify the voter’s documentary proof of residency (a requirement as of 2014) at a registration drive. Now that verification must be done by county or municipal clerks. Voters can still register by mail, but they’ll have to include photocopies of evidentiary documents with their forms.
Reid Magney, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, doubts elimination of the special registration deputy program will affect registration numbers, adding that people will still be able to register on Election Day. “Clerks receive and review proof of residency documents all the time,” he says. “I don’t have figures, but [registration deputies] make up a relatively small percentage of voter registrations.”
However, critics say these deputies were registering people who have a difficult time navigating the system: low-income people, transients and people of color, many of whom have limited internet access or lack official IDs.
Paul Malischke, one of over 1,000 special registration deputies in Madison alone, has been helping out at these registration events for 10 years — he’s gone to libraries, high schools, and senior centers to register voters. He says the new law is particularly “egregious.”
“It makes it a lot easier for a certain demographic to be registered versus another,” Malischke says.
Wisconsin League of Women Voters, which has held registration drives around the state for decades, shares Malischke’s concern. Andrea Kaminski, the group’s executive director, applauds the use of online voter registration, but says it should have been offered as another option.
“All they’ve done is made it easier for those people who have a Wisconsin driver’s license or state ID and who want to register and who are still living at the residence that the DMV has for them,” she says. “They could have offered online voter registration as a wonderful new tool that makes registration easier for many voters. They could have offered that without cutting back on other options.”
In his March statement, LeMahieu claimed that registration drives are still possible, writing that the law “empowers everyone to go out into their communities with a smartphone or tablet and help citizens register to vote.”
But critics say that while drives aren’t explicitly banned, the state has imposed restrictions that would render them ineffective. Most organizations can’t afford the resources they’d need to keep doing them.
For the League to continue its registration drives, Kaminski says, volunteers will need to have internet access and a photocopier handy wherever they do the drives.
But Malischke adds there will be many limitations. “If you’re trying to do a door-to-door registration drive and you find someone without [the right] ID, you’re going to have to pull a Xerox machine out of your back pocket.”
It isn’t just the poor and disenfranchised who will be affected by the new rules, Kaminski says. “I know the League of Women Voters of Dane County went out to Epic and they found something like 30 percent of the employees had out-of-state driver’s licenses,” says Kaminski. “So there you have people who are quite capable of doing things online, but they just wouldn’t be allowed to.”
Kaminski says her group will do what it can to help people register, perhaps only holding drives in places where Wi-Fi is available and asking people to bring their residency documents with them.
McGrath sees the law as another in a series designed to suppress voting of select groups in Wisconsin. She notes that a judge in 2014 estimated 300,000 people in the state did not have the proper IDs to vote under the state’s new voter ID requirement. McGrath fears the number of people unable to vote will grow under the new registration rules.
“What I saw on Election Day was flat-out disenfranchisement,” she says of the November election. “I saw people all day who didn’t have an ID and didn’t know the law because the state didn’t spend much money to inform people — to think it could get any worse in Wisconsin is incredibly unsettling.... There’s no doubt in my mind that there are people who are elected officials with the intent to suppress voters in Wisconsin.”
Malischke, who has helped register UW-Madison students, says that at typical events, he might see up to 100 out-of-state students wanting to register.
With all the extra barriers, says McGrath, it just means there’s a bigger need to fight for access and get people informed. “It’s the end of clipboard, in-the-field grassroots organizations and access,” she says. “To think of how many people [Malischke] has registered alone on campus and off, to think of all those voters who are going to have that much more difficulty voting...it’s hard to ignore that.
Editor's note: This article was amended to correct a misattributed quote and note that the estimate of 300,000 people unable to vote because of the state's voter ID law was from 2014, not the recent election.