Fred Risser is a veteran Wisconsin state senator. Actually, he is the longest-serving state legislator in American political history. Bald and bearded, quick to laugh, he is the genial grandfather at the family picnic.
But Risser was not feeling genial, lately. May 19 he had been recognized to speak and was making a point on the floor of the Wisconsin State Senate. Risser was questioning the constitutionality and ethics of the Republican-sponsored voter suppression bill, AB7. However, State Senate President Mike Ellis, the new majority leader, cut him off – loudly, practically screaming, talking right over him – instead of considering Risser's important legal questions.
In over 50 years of serving in the legislature, Risser said that he hadn't seen anything like it. When Risser makes that assertion, it carries considerable weight. He was born on May 5, 1927, into a storied Wisconsin political family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the Wisconsin legislature – all representing the State Capitol district, the city of Madison. Fred, now 84, was first elected to the legislature in 1956. Since he first became a state senator, he has never lost an election.
So, what were the Wisconsin Republicans in such a hurry to do? What made them steamroll seniority and abandon procedure? The bill in question will make it harder to vote. The party that was purportedly supporting democracy in the Middle East was thwarting it in the Midwest. Republican Gov. Scott Walker has claimed credit for originating the voter suppression bill, but it was a vote embraced by every Republican state senator. It made perfect sense that the Republicans didn't want to discuss the bill. Why discuss a bill that restricts people's right to express themselves and to participate in their own government?
The voter suppression bill passed by the Republican senators triples the length of time a resident must live in a voting district, requires voters to purchase a picture identification, eliminates the straight-ticket voting option and requires voters to sign a poll list before receiving their ballots. Democrats claim that insufficient notice of these voting requirements will discourage voters who show up at the polls without having complied, meaning they would need at least one more trip in order to be able to vote.
African-American State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) maintains that the bill would suppress the vote of minorities, seniors, youth and those who have recently moved or who don't have a permanent address. State Sen. Spencer Coggs, also from Milwaukee, warned that the bill would have a chilling effect on the majority of Wisconsin. “And when the majority gets a chill,” lamented Coggs, “the African American community gets pneumonia.” (Wispolitics.com, 5/21-5/22)
Republicans claimed that the purpose of the bill was to address voter fraud. But such fraud is either a figment of fevered imaginations or a red herring only. Of the 3.8 million people who voted in the last election, there were only 11 reports of felony voter fraud. In the past, Wisconsin lawmakers sought ways to encourage participation in the democratic process.
As the Republicans stampeded, bullying their way to limit voting by their opponents – both on the floor of the legislature and in statewide voting booths – Risser shared his thoughts:
“This legislation is nothing more than a voter suppression measure. It will have a significant negative effect on the ability of many individuals – seniors, students, rural residents and people with disabilities – to vote.
“Supporters argue that this measure is necessary to stop voter fraud, which has proven to be practically nonexistent in Wisconsin. The truth is that this bill's supporters want to impose as many roadblocks as possible to make it more difficult for certain segments of the population to vote.
“Wisconsin should work to find ways to strengthen election procedures and voter turnout without erecting additional barriers to disenfranchise our citizens.” [Press Release 5/19]
This was particularly heartfelt for Risser, who, as a young legislator in 1959, had voted to give public employees the right to join unions and bargain collectively. Now, in Wisconsin – the first state in the union to confer these constitutional rights – Republicans seek to suppress the popular vote – partly in order to take away collective bargaining and break those same unions.