Milwaukee – Wisconsinites' efforts to protect democracy—in the workplace and through the ballot—are rapidly escalating on two key fronts. The state will soon witness major election and legal battles to combat Walker-supported laws limiting the rights of public workers and restricting voting booth access. Laws passed in 2011 virtually eliminate public-employee bargaining rights and restrict voting to those with approved IDs, which could potentially disenfranchise tens of thousands of state residents.
“First you take away workers’ rights, then you change the laws so that it’s hard for them to vote you out of office,” said Scot Ross, director of One Wisconsin Now, a progressive media-focused group.
On Tuesday, the United Wisconsin coalition of labor and the Democratic Party delivered petitions—signed by about 1 million Wisconsin residents, at least some of which likely voted for Walker— calling for a recall election for the governor. Only 540,208 valid signatures are required to trigger such an election.
Walker is expected to face a Democratic opponent sometime this spring. His lieutenant governor and four Republican senators are also likely to face recall votes.
Only two governors have been recalled in U.S. history, but Walker’s high unfavorability ratings—58% of Badger State residents support his recall-—suggest that his head could become the third to roll.
Lawsuit Against Voter ID Bill Begins
The League of Women Voters’ lawsuit against Wisconsin’s voter identification law—described by Wisconsin Common Cause director Jay Heck as “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation”—will open this week before a Dane County judge.
“We saw labor protests of unprecedented size and intensity over limiting their voice as workers,” observed Frances Fox Piven, co-author of three works on the uniquely restrictive character of the U.S. system of voting. “And then [protesters] were greeted with a law to limit their power electorally, too.”
Among the groups who will find the new law burdensome are sectors of the population who lack photo IDs and the means to easily obtain it. That would include 23% of elderly Wisconsinites, 59% of Latina women, 55% of African-American men overall and 78% of African American men who are 18 to 24 years old.
As in other states, the Wisconsin Republicans felt no obligation to present proof that voter-impersonation fraud—the supposed target of the legislation—actually takes place in more than a tiny handful of cases. As the New York Times reported,
The Brennan Center [of New York University Law School] argues that the type of fraud that such laws are intended to combat — impersonation — is extremely rare. The South Carolina State Election Commission “knows of no confirmed cases of voter identification fraud, defined as a person presenting himself to vote as someone he is not,” Chris Whitmire, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Federal records “show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005,” according to “The Politics of Fraud,” a Project Vote report written by political scientist Lorraine Minnite.
But the extreme rarity of this form of potential fraud has seldom been stressed in corporate media accounts. Most stories on the issue simply present statements and counter-statements by the two major political parties, with no examination of the evidence offered to the public.
A number of Wisconsin Democratic legislators marked the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday by appealing to the federal Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder to take action against the state’s new voter ID law.
Holder’s Justice Department has refused to give clearance to South Carolina’s new voter ID law, as the former confederate state is still subject to Justice Department approval under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (But Gov. Nikki Haley—despite no evidence that voter impersonation fraud has occurred in her state—is launching a lawsuit challenging the Justice Department’s authority and thus the foundation of the Voting Rights Act).
While the Justice Department has no similar power to overrule Wisconsin’s voter ID law, the department could still presumably hold hearings in the state to help document the hardships that the law would cause in Wisconsin. Democratic legislators have been clamoring for nearly a year for the Justice Dept. to find some means of intervening in the state.
Despite Education Efforts, ID Law May Lower Recall Vote
More than 300 people attended a January 11 seminar in Milwaukee aimed at educating senior citizen, civil rights, and disability activists to help marginalized people obtain photo IDs so that they can vote in this year’s critical gubernatorial and presidential elections.
About 178,000 people 65 and older in Wisconsin lack a driver’s license or a state photo ID, said Stephanie Sue Stein, director of Milwaukee County’s Council on Aging, the principal sponsor of the event.
Senior citizens face multiple problems obtaining all the documents necessary to obtain a photo ID, said Congresswoman Gwen Moore, a Democrat and Progressive Caucus member representing Milwaukee. For example, one of her constituents tried to obtain a birth certificate but discovered that the Southern county courthouse containing the document had burned down.
In other cases, said voting rights activist Jaime McBrady, many states require copies of a photo ID before they will issue a copy of a birth certificate, creating a “Catch-22” situation that prevents people from getting the photo ID needed to vote in Wisconsin.
Rep. Moore told In These Times that she believes the Justice Department unfortunately has limited power to intervene in Wisconsin. “We’re not a pre-clearance state under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act like South Carolina, she noted, “and the Supreme Court has held that laws like Indiana’s [photo ID law] are not the equivalent of a poll tax.
“But the court’s ruling still leaves a little door open,” she said. “If a voting law creates a burden to a large number of people, then it may be invalid. And compared with Wisconsin, Indiana has a much higher percentage of people with photo IDs and Department of Motor Vehicle offices are open for much longer hours than Wisconsin.”
Unless the law is overturned—either by the courts or a new governor presiding over newly-flexible legislators—the new law seems a major threat to a high turnout during the recall election. Stein warned that an all-out effort will be needed to educate the public about the new restrictions. But some heart-breaking results may be inevitable, she says.
“There will be many senior citizens who get to the polls and discover that for the first time in their lives, they are not allowed to vote.”