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May 2012

Right to Vote in Wisconsin

by Ed Vopal, President
Wisconsin Association for Justice

In Wisconsin, we are living in historic times.  For only the third time in U.S. history, on June 5, 2012, a vote to recall a Governor will occur. In addition, other recall races are taking place for Lt. Governor and four State Senate seats.  If this gubernatorial election has the similar margins of the 2010 election, every Wisconsin voter must understand that their vote makes a difference.
 
As with most, if not all, elections, much is at stake.  Ultimately, any election is decided when citizens exercise their right to vote.  It is important, therefore, to reflect on the right of Wisconsin citizens to vote.  It has been said that the right to vote is the foundation of a democracy.
 
People often use the phrase "right to vote" in everyday conversation.  Do Wisconsin citizens have this right?  The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights do not provide for a discrete and affirmative "right to vote."  The U.S. Constitution provides, however, that Representatives be chosen and Senators be elected by "the People."  In addition, the U.S. Constitution contains many provisions detailing ways that people cannot be denied the right to vote based on race, gender or age. 
 
These changes came about because initially voting was limited to white men who owned property and then generally to the white male population.  After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment was adopted, which said the "right to vote" could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."  Later the right to vote was extended to women and to 18-year-olds. In 1965, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, to ensure the protection of minority voting rights.  The law forbids literacy tests and other barriers to registration which had restricted minority access to voting.  Beyond these general requirements among others, states determine qualifications of voters as well as voting policies and procedures for their citizens.
  
Article III, Section 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution provides Wisconsin citizens with a right to vote, stating, "Every United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district."  Article III, Section 2 allows the legislature to make laws defining residency, providing for registration of electors and providing for absentee voting.  This section also authorizes the government to exclude from voting certain classes of residents such as convicted felons whose civil rights have not been restored and persons judged incompetent/partially incompetent, with some exceptions.  Finally, subject to ratification by the people at a general election, laws may be enacted extending the right of suffrage to additional classes.
 
Recently, Wisconsin citizens' right to vote has been the subject of much scrutiny as courts have reviewed the constitutionality of Wisconsin's recently passed Voter ID law (2011 Wisconsin Act 23, effective June 10, 2011, Wisconsin Statutes § 6.79, et seq.).  Currently, two Dane County circuit courts have suspended the Voter ID law based on the right to vote provided in Wisconsin's Constitution.  One decision granted a permanent injunction and the other a temporary injunction against enforcement of the Voter ID law.  These decisions are subject to further court action, review and appeal. 
 
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has described the right to vote as a "sacred right" for citizens of this state. It is important, therefore, that Wisconsin citizens exercise this most precious of rights. Slightly less than 50 percent of eligible Wisconsin voters cast a ballot in the November 2010 Governor's race.
 
Wisconsin citizens should not take lightly their constitutional right to vote.  Without people exercising the right to vote, government ceases to exist as a functioning democratic institution.  In the upcoming weeks, Wisconsin residents should undertake their duty to know the issues and the candidates.  Then, informed voter participation is essential.  Please exercise your constitutional right to vote.

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For more information about the Wisconsin Association for Justice, see WAJ's website or call 608-257-5741.

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