The right to vote in America originated as a privilege for those in society deemed worthy of having an opinion. Thankfully, as the country progressed, brave men and women took a stand to earn the right to vote for all citizens. Ideally, it would be wonderful to say that their sacrifices were enough and all we have left to do is take advantage of our right to vote. However, the sad reality is that our right is constantly trying to be reformed back into a privilege, and being grateful for those who came before us is simply not enough.
Unlike a physical fight or an explosive public argument, attacks on voting rights have occurred quietly, and their ramifications are not felt until it’s too late to change the circumstances. In Wisconsin, among other states, voting rights are silently being stripped away through the use of strict voter ID laws, short time frames, and lack of public awareness.
The November 2016 presidential election was the first major election that Wisconsin decided to implement their new policy that requires voters—both registered and unregistered—to present a current driver’s license, passport, or state or military ID to cast a ballot. In the past, voters with a valid proof of residency could use an expired license one year after the expiration date to vote. Voters who went to vote and were considered ineligible due to this new law were given a ballot and instructed to go to their local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), acquire a new ID, and then go to the city clerk’s office to turn in their ballot within the time frame of 72 hours. This reduced time frame eliminated the voice of Americans who do not enjoy the luxury of a flexible schedule or unlimited time off.
Voting is one of the few ways Americans can voice their opinions, and yet restrictions that lead to voter suppression enforce the idea that not everyone is worthy to participate in their society. In 2016, Wisconsin, “which ranked second highest in voter participation in 2008 and 2012” lost approximately 41,000 voters. In districts stricken by poverty, voter “turnout dropped 23 percent compared to 2012.”1 Instead of discussing the reasons for the low turnout and talking about potential solutions, Wisconsin leaders mocked claims that the quietly passed restrictions and lack of public awareness about the changes to these laws had any correlation with the turnout.
Historically speaking, the lower voter turnout was not just some unanticipated consequence. In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office “concluded that voter ID laws may reduce voter turnout.”3 They thoroughly examined 10 different studies and compared turnout between states that had voter ID laws and those that didn’t. Not only did states with voter ID laws see a reduced voter turnout, but it also negatively impacted certain groups of individuals, specifically African Americans and those aged 18 to 23.
While a couple lower percentage points may not seem like a lot, in Wisconsin’s 2016 election, the first one where the voter ID laws were enacted, the presidency was determined “by less than one percentage point” and “Attorney General Brad Schimel credited this to the photo ID requirement,” which he claimed helped “Trump win Wisconsin.”3
Another group marginalized by these strict laws is college students. “Out of the 13 University of Wisconsin four-year colleges, only 4 provide campus-issued IDs that are compliant for voting.” Unfortunately, this is not due to ignorance; rather, it’s by design. “A former GOP staffer testified in 2016 that some Republican senators in a closed session were giddy about the prospect of voter ID suppressing votes by Milwaukee residents and college students, both of whom tend to vote Democratic.”3
Lack of public awareness about changes in voter ID laws also hurt small-town voters in Wisconsin. Those who lacked proper identification were told that they could obtain free state IDs at local DMV offices, but those offices were “only open four days in 2016.”3 Confusion over the law changes coupled with a severe lack of resources to help people comply with the new restrictions led to another group of individuals unable to cast a vote and voice their opinions.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin has taken numerous actions in regards to these strict voter ID laws. In 2011, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin challenging the voter ID laws in Wisconsin. In 2014, the district struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID laws “in its entirety.”2 However, in early October 2014, the courts of appeals reversed the ruling. While the ACLU of Wisconsin was able to block the laws from taking effects in the November 2014 midterms and the April 2015 primary, it did not block it forever.
In July 2016, the federal district court ruled that voters who have trouble obtaining identification under Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law can vote by affidavit, but the state appealed that decision as well. While the ACLU continues to challenge voter suppression in Wisconsin, it’s a difficult battle, and we rely on our staff, volunteers, and members to help us in this fight. While it’s important to cherish the victories that come our way, we recognize that our work in this area is far from over.
It’s absurd that skin color, age, an expired ID, or a crime committed in the past means that a citizen no longer has the right to contribute to how their society is run. It’s important to remember that while our rights are the combination of generations’ struggles and sacrifices, those rights are not protected from public and private attacks. The ACLU will work endlessly to fight for the country we want to live in, but we cannot do it alone. It took many brave individuals to attain everyone’s right to vote, and it will take even more to ensure that they remain protected and accessible to all American citizens.
1 Berman, Ari. (2018, October 16). Rigged: how voter suppression threw Wisconsin to Trump. Mother Jones. motherjones.com/politics/2017/10/voter-suppression-wisconsin-election-2016
2 Frank v. Walker: fighting voter suppression in Wisconsin. ACLU. (2016, December 12). aclu.org/cases/frank-v-walker-fighting-voter-suppression-wisconsin
3 Smith, Cameron. (2018, September 30). Voter ID tied to lower Wisconsin turnout; student, people of color, elderly most affected. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. jsonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2018/09/30/voter-id-tied-lower-wisconsin-turnout/1480862002
Kali Timm is the development coordinator at ACLU of Wisconsin.
ACLU of Wisconsin
207 E. Buffalo Street #325
Milwaukee, WI 53202