We're Not Mayberry
Law Day 2014 - Protecting the Right to Vote 

Chris Stombaugh, President
Wisconsin Association for Justice

Attempts to weaken voting rights have taken a hit.  First, state circuit courts declared Wisconsin's Voter ID law unconstitutional and now Milwaukee Federal Judge Lynn Adelman blocked the Voter ID law from going into effect because of its discriminatory impact on Blacks and Latinos. 

And to put the icing on the cake, Federal Judge Richard Posner, who originally ruled in support of Indiana's Voter ID Law, backpedaled. Stopping short of saying he was wrong, Posner says he's not as confident the law is right because it is "now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than fraud prevention."

Simply stated, Judge Posner is saying the reforms have nothing to do with creating more uniformity, saving tax dollars, or anything else. It's about politicians picking their voters, not voters choosing their politicians. It's about stopping people, largely poor and largely minority, from voting. Period.  

Because voting rights are under attack, the American Bar Association (ABA) chose American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters as its Law Day theme. Proclaimed by President Eisenhower in 1958, Law Day marks how "the law and legal process have contributed to the freedoms all Americans share."

As we celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the theme is even more poignant as Wisconsin became one of nine states that have enacted laws to make voting harder.

In addition to the Voter ID law under scrutiny, Governor Walker also signed a voting reform bill in March which cut polling hours and eliminated weekend voting. The fact that fewer hours make voting more difficult in traditional Democratic strongholds just happens to be a bonus.

Proponents of Wisconsin's new voting law like to argue that among other things the guidelines will be more consistent. If Wisconsin was made up of nothing but small towns like Mayberry it might be a good argument. But Wisconsin, unlike Mayberry, is complicated.

Fraud was the other reason given for the change, but it simply isn't a problem in Wisconsin elections. In 2008, only 20 people were charged with some form of voter fraud. Out of some three million votes cast, this hardly represents an electoral crime wave. 

At a time when Wisconsin's voting rates are strong, enacting laws to make voting more difficult are oxymoronic. Our elections are already some of the best in the nation according to a Pew Charitable Trust report. In 2012, Wisconsin was second, just behind Minnesota, in voter turnout (70%+) and when you consider all of the study criteria, we place third nationally. Pew also places Wisconsin among the highest ranked states in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Voter turnout, minimal waiting times, and voter registration policies are just some of the things Pew says we do very well.

The world lines up to make voting easier. Canada is experimenting with online voting. Some 38 nations make voting mandatory as a sign of its significance in society. But in Wisconsin we decide the right play is to jump out of line and make voting harder?

It's farcical to argue Wisconsin's new voting law is fair. What works in Prairie du Chien could be Milwaukee's disaster. Bayfield is nothing like Beloit. Part of the answer is to right size the approach for each community. Don't throw a badly made blanket with gaping holes over the entire state and then argue how lucky we are. 

James Silkenat, president of the ABA, says our nation's election laws should permit the broadest and least restrictive access to the ballot box. We couldn't agree more.

This year, be bold. Don't just vote but stand up for voting rights. Volunteer at the polls. Help a friend vote who might need a ride. Limiting the right to vote makes government less representative which diminishes all of us. In 2014, cast a loud vote for democracy by protecting and defending the right to vote.                                         

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