Wisconsin again ranked among the best in the country when it comes to running elections, according to a new study from Pew Charitable Trusts — yet apparently this outstanding performance is a problem, and it might be “fixed” through new limits on early voting and proposals to kill same-day registration.
In the 2012 elections, Wisconsin ranked second in voter turnout, just behind neighboring Minnesota. Both states allow election day registration and adequate time for early voting (a combination that studies show increases voter participation), and both had turnout well above 70%.
Overall, Wisconsin ranked third among the 50 states, according to the Pew study, based on criteria like voter turnout, average wait times, and voter registration policies. Pew also ranked Wisconsin among the highest-performing states during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.
Wisconsin has high rates of participation, short lines and no problem with fraud, yet Republicans have remained uniquely fixated on enacting sweeping changes to how the state’s elections are run.
Short Wait Times Could Become Longer
In response to exceptionally long wait times in some states, last year the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration urged states to expand early voting in order to reduce wait times.
Wisconsin was ahead of the curve. Thanks to two weeks of early and weekend voting, in 2012 at least 392,000 Wisconsinites voted before election day at their clerk’s offices.
Accordingly, Wisconsin’s average wait time for voting in 2012 was just 8.2 minutes, according to the Pew report, well below the national average of 11 minutes.
Yet last month, Governor Scott Walker cut early voting in the state, limiting it to 55 hours a week and ending it on weekends. Many decried the move as partisan: the highest in-person early voting totals came from Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee and Madison, and voters who cast a ballot early supported Obama 58 to 41 percent.
What might happen in 2014? Take a look at Florida.
In advance of the 2012 elections, Florida Republicans also cut early voting, including during the Sunday before the election, when black churches would rally voters to polling places (and often support Democrats).
According to the Pew study, Florida voters waited an average of 45 minutes to cast a ballot on election day — an increase of more than 16 minutes over 2008. That gave the state the longest wait times in the country; additionally, an estimated 200,000 people decided not to vote at all rather than wait in line.
This week, Florida officials acknowledged the state’s poor performance in the Pew study, but said that the problems that caused long lines have been cured — thanks to the state reinstating early voting last year.
Pouring Energy into Election Mechanics
At the same time that Walker signed legislation to cut early voting, he approved a measure that allows poll watchers — like True the Vote-trained voter vigilantes — to effectively hover over voters, and stand just 36 inches from the registration table.
Other crackdowns on Wisconsin’s best-in-the-country elections could be on the way.
Republican leadership has expressed interest in ending election day registration, which is used by 11% of Wisconsin voters and helps drive up turnout. And, although the voter ID restrictions passed in 2011 remains blocked by courts, Governor Walker said he would call a special session to enact a new law if courts strike it down.
“It’s just sad when a political party has so lost faith in its ideas that it’s pouring all of its energy into election mechanics,” said retiring Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz, the only Senate Republican to oppose the limits on early voting. “I am not willing to defend them anymore. I’m just not, and I’m embarrassed by this.”