David Michael Miller
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl grew up in the small town of Edgerton, population 5,494, where voting was pretty simple. "Everyone lived in walking distance of the clerk's office. I never had to wait when I voted absentee."
I doubt if every small town and suburb in Wisconsin works quite that neatly, but you rarely hear complaints about their voters lacking easy access to the polls. Yet Republicans are now making the argument that big cities like Milwaukee and Madison have a special advantage when it comes early voting. As Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told the media, "It's difficult for people to turn on Channel 6 in Milwaukee and there's a shot of someone voting during a time when it's not available to people in rural areas."
There's a rather obvious reason that longer hours might be needed to handle early voters in big cities than in Edgerton. Because Madison is 44 times bigger. Because Milwaukee is 109 times bigger. The logistics of handling so many more voters would be difficult enough, but state law makes it far tougher by requiring cities to have only locations where in-person absentee voters can be processed.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says the city has repeatedly asked the Legislature to allow big cities to have more places for in-person early voting. "For years we've asked for more locations, so you wouldn't have these bottlenecks and long lines." But legislators refused.
But they did more than that. In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers cut back the early-voting period from three weeks, including three weekends, to two weeks, including one weekend. But that still wasn't enough. Now GOP lawmakers are about to pass a bill that would end any early voting on weekends and require that it occur only on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., with a total time limit of 45 hours of early voting a week.
Under this time constraint, Barrett notes, given the number of people who voted early in a small city like Menasha (population 15,712) in 2012, they would have had two minutes per person to vote. In Milwaukee you would have a person voting every nine seconds. Of course, that's impossible.
Needless to say, if GOP leaders believed these time limits would prevent voters in Republican-leaning suburbs and small towns from voting, they would not have proposed them. But a reduction in voting in big cities is perfectly acceptable.
Republicans, of course, haven't admitted this is their goal. No, they simply seek to "level the playing field," as Fitzgerald puts it, between big cities and smaller municipalities. If that's the approach, why not require Madison to use an all-volunteer fire department? Why not compel Milwaukee to reduce its police force of 1,000 or so officers to an Andy Griffith-styled corps of two? Why not require the 599,000 residents of the state's biggest city to cart their own garbage to the city dump?
It's hardly less absurd to require big cities to handle voting as quickly as a tiny town like Edgerton, where the small number of early voters can vote without waiting in line.
In legislative discussions, Republicans offered no testimony suggesting suburbs or rural towns were having problems providing access to voters. Indeed, the reality is that these areas have a much higher percentage of early voters than cities like Madison and Milwaukee.
In the November 2012 presidential election, the proportion of all people voting early was 12.5% in Madison and 12.6% in Milwaukee, but the statewide average was 16.7%. Suburbs and small towns like Whitefish Bay (34.5% voted early), Menasha (28.2%), Brookfield (26.5%), Port Washington (26%) and Oconomowoc (25.8%) all had far higher rates of early voting.
No, the real problem for Republicans in that election was that the big cities, which normally have a smaller total turnout of voters, ran up big numbers. Madison drove 69% of its registered voters to the polls, nearly equal to the statewide percentage (70%), while Milwaukee shocked GOP strategists with a 75% turnout. One way to reduce that turnout would be to severely reduce the hours allowed for early voting.
Back when Republican Tommy Thompson was governor, there was a bipartisan consensus that government should do all it can to provide access for people to vote. Thompson didn't worry about the turnout in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County because he carried it in every election.
State Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), who served in Thompson's cabinet, charged that today's Republicans have adopted a very different strategy than their predecessors: "If you can't win them over with policies and ideas and candidates, you suppress the turnout."
Witzel-Behl predicts the Republican restrictions on early voting will reduce the turnout in Madison. Barrett fears the same thing will happen in Milwaukee. "They're not trying to fix problems," he charges, "they are trying to fix the elections."
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.