Protecting Voting Rights Since 1920

Photo by The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin

Prior to a major election, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin office is awash in phone calls. Andrea Kaminski, the state executive director, fields calls from reporters asking about the impact of state voter ID legislation and court cases. Prospective voters contact the office with straightforward questions about how to register and where to vote, and with questions involving unique registration or voting issues. In addition, the office serves as the headquarters and call center for League-trained election observers statewide, and connects callers with local questions to one of Wisconsin’s 17 local League offices.

During election seasons, these local Leagues work to inform and motivate voters by holding non-partisan candidate forums and encouraging voter registration and voter participation. The Dane County League, which is the state’s largest with 235 members, trains moderators for many forums held throughout the county, and interviews candidates for city and county offices to prepare the popular, non-partisan Candidates’ Answers publication which is available in print and online.

Photo by Sutter The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin

Although the profile of the League of Women Voters is highest during an election season, League members are active year-round. While the League never supports or opposes a political party or candidate, it does develop policy positions. Through consensus, each local League determines issues of importance to its area and sets a program for the year, working with citizens and government to build support and understanding around the issues. Right now, Northern Wisconsin Leagues focus on aspects of mining and its impact, Door County is concerned with redistricting and civility, and Dane County League members are at work on governance, social justice, and natural resource issues.

Member consensus also determines the positions of the state organization. When the League updated its state energy policy a few years ago, a statewide committee led the research phase, which included interviews with industry leaders, academics, and advocates, then identified and shared published resources with local Leagues for discussions and public forums. Following the study and input phases, members adopted a broad statement of position at the statewide convention. The position paper, which is available online at lwvwi.org/IssuesAdvocacy/NaturalResourcesEnergy.aspx supports public policies aimed at limiting the demand for electricity and promoting clean energy technologies.

The League’s state legislative committee follows the identified issues. When a pertinent bill comes before the state legislature, League members submit statements to lawmakers, testify at hearings, notify members and news media of the League’s support or opposition, and encourage their members to contact their legislators.

The League of Women Voters began as a means to educate and support all voters in 1920. When the suffragists’ 75-year struggle earned women the right to vote, 20 million new voters were registered. The League encouraged them to form educated opinions on governmental issues, and to advocate and vote. From the beginning, all voters, not just women, benefited from League voter education. League membership was opened to men in 1973, and today about 10% of Wisconsin membership is male.

Photo by Sutter The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin

Women’s issues remain important to League members, and the League was influential in the legislative fights that led to marital property reforms in Wisconsin during the 1970s. Although some referred to the women advocating for reform as “lobbyists in tennis shoes,” they were able to meet with, and convince, legislators of the need for changes. Andrea laments that this type of advocacy is more difficult now because many legislators refuse to listen to people from outside their own district. She also points out that during the last legislative session a bill was drafted that challenged marital property reform, so there is a continued need for vigilance regarding women’s rights.

Of course, a major focus of the League of Women Voters is protecting voters’ rights. Andrea expresses the League’s strong concerns about Wisconsin’s voter ID laws and points out many ways in which laws have already hampered voter registration efforts. The law that took effect in 2014 requires documentary proof of residency, which makes it difficult for many people to prove they are residents. Voter registration drives now turn away as many people as they register.

“Voting should be encouraged,” says Andrea. “The problem is not too many people voting. The problem is that not enough people vote.” To combat the detrimental effects of the new registration requirements, the League hosted forums with speakers from the Government Accountability Board (GAB) to educate prospective voters, and utilized a grant from the Evjue Foundation to help county residents who could not afford fees and travel costs to obtain the required documentation.

In 2011, Wisconsin’s voter ID law passed. The League’s response was swift. The League filed a lawsuit in state court in 2011 and won injunctions that protected Wisconsin voters from the law’s effects in five elections held in 2012 and 2013. When the League’s challenge was dismissed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July 2014, League members put their support behind two federal lawsuits now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and will submit an amicus brief encouraging the Court to take the case.

Photo by Sutter The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin

The courts have blocked implementation of the law since 2012. Two independent studies found that an estimated 300,000 people currently registered in Wisconsin lack the kind of ID that would be acceptable to vote under Wisconsin’s voter ID law. If the voter ID law is implemented, one-tenth of the registered voters in Wisconsin could be disenfranchised. “There are voter ID laws that ID people, and voter ID laws that exclude people,” Andrea asserts.

One route to involvement with the League of Women Voters is to become an election observer. In the fall of 2014, the League trained about 250 volunteers around the state to be non-partisan election observers. With 1,852 municipalities and thousands of polling places, these observers are present at a small fraction of polling places, so the League strategically targets polling places with past problems and covers a representative sample of city, small town, and rural sites. Training allows observers to identify and help resolve common problems. For unresolved issues, they call the Election Protection hotline. A partnering organization may send a volunteer lawyer or contact the GAB.

The League shares a summary of the observers’ written reports with lawmakers, the GAB, local clerks, and the public, and uses the reports when working with lawmakers and election officials to improve the voting experience. The League’s election observers are valued as trained, impartial reporters, and leave with an appreciation for democracy. One observer wrote, “And thank you for this wonderful opportunity to observe and interact with a vast range of citizens, all committed to exercise their right to vote. It was an exhilarating experience.” Another commented, “I enjoyed being a small part of this election. I know I made a difference for at least one vote, and that is very gratifying.”

For more information about becoming an election observer, joining, or supporting the League of Women Voters, visit lwvwi.org or call (608) 256-0827.

Yvette Jones is a writer who appreciates her right to vote. She is President of designCraft Advertising in Madison.