Moving forward on voting

“…Republican leadership is waging a coordinated and fundamentally unpatriotic war on our democracy right here in Wisconsin.”  – Governor Tony Evers speaking about Republican legislation to limit voting

This week’s article continues our look at Governor Evers’ proposed legislative agenda. Evers is proposing automatic voter registration and expanding early voting. Democratic legislators, and one Republican, are proposing a more democratic way to vote.

Since Biden won the presidential election, Republicans have been waging a coordinated, unpatriotic war on democracy and voting rights. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Tim Tiffany continue to repeat the blatant lies about “election fraud” and Biden stealing the election. GOP legislators in Wisconsin, and across the nation, are pushing bills to make voting more difficult.

Many Republicans claim they are acting to prevent “voter fraud.” But voter fraud is extremely rare. These same Republicans are actually trying to make voting harder rather than addressing voter fraud. One tactic is the purging of voter registration lists. If they were really concerned with the accuracy of voter registration lists they should welcome automatic voter registration.

Automatic voter registration is an effective way to ensure all eligible voters are properly registered. When people interact with government agencies for other reasons their voter information is updated automatically. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted automatic voter registration. Allowing online voter registration and election day (or “same day”) registration also make sure no one is denied the right to vote because of bureaucratic hurdles.

The Brennan Center for Justice says that between 2014 and 2016, 16 million voters were purged across the country. They also found that a “significantly higher” number were purged in southern states with a history of voting discrimination against minorities. Research has also shown that cases of individual voter fraud are essentially zero. Inconsistencies in voter registration information are usually minor failures to update the record with no intent to vote fraudulently.

Voter ID laws are another tactic to suppress voters. These requirements sound reasonable but result in making it harder for many citizens to vote. Rather than preventing fraud, they are an excuse to limit who can vote. The Brennan Center says 11% of eligible voters do not have the kind of ID that is required by states with strict ID requirements. Like Jim Crow poll taxes and literacy requirements, strict voter ID laws impact minorities more heavily. In addition, students, disabled, poor and elderly voters have a harder time registering and voting.

Wisconsin Republicans are pushing a number of restrictions on voting. These include restrictions on absentee voting, limiting electronic voter registration, prohibiting staff in nursing homes from assisting residents, and hassling disabled people who are “indefinitely confined” when applying for absentee ballots. Republicans are also fixated on the use of drop boxes for returning absentee ballots. For some nonsensical reason, depositing one’s ballot in a secure steel box is seen as promoting fraud. They claim doing the same at the post office also promotes fraud. This is simply ridiculous.

The Assembly Republicans have also introduced a bill to allocate the state’s electoral votes based on who wins Congressional districts rather than the statewide popular vote. This undemocratic process would allow gerrymandered Congressional district totals to trump statewide results. In the last election, this would have given Wisconsin’s electoral votes to Trump even though Biden won the state. This legislation is not an election “reform.” It is obviously another attempted power grab.

These actions clearly indicate that Republicans do not support open, fair, democratic voting procedures. These actions are an attempt to rig elections in their favor. Conservatives have a long history of voter suppression and all this is a simple continuation of that effort.

On the positive side, there is a bipartisan effort to reform elections and make them more democratic. Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) have introduced legislation to have “final five voting” for primaries and “ranked choice voting” for general elections. These voting procedures allow people to vote for their favorite candidate and still have their additional choices count. These procedures eliminate minority candidates being elected. Winning candidates will always receive more than 50% of the vote.

With final five primaries all candidates are on the ballot and the top five – regardless of party – advance to the general election. In the general election voters use ranked choice voting. They can vote for more than one candidate by indicating their first, second, etc., choice. A candidate must receive a majority of votes to win. If no candidate gets above 50%, the bottom candidate is eliminated and those voter’s second choice is added to the other candidate’s totals. This process continues until someone wins more than 50% of the vote.

Top five primaries and ranked choice voting has a number of benefits. Ugly partisanship would be reduced. Candidates would have to appeal to a majority of voters and not just a partisan base. Elections could become less acrimonious. Voters can select their preferred candidate with less fear of “wasting” their vote. Third party candidates would have a better chance to win. It rewards candidates who run more positive campaigns rather than attacking opponents. Candidates must appeal to, and not anger, supporters of other candidates because they may need those second, or third choice voters. The overall quality of candidates, regardless of party, might improve with these procedures.

Ranked choice voting is not a new invention. It was first proposed in the 19th century. Elections for parliament in Australia and Ireland have used it for 100 years. In the U.S., some states and municipalities use versions for local elections. Wisconsin adopted it in 1911 as part of the Progressive Era reforms, but it didn’t withstand partisan opposition and was dropped a few years later.

Final five primaries and ranked choice voting are not a panacea, but given the ugliness, polarization, and cost of our current electoral mess, it is a good step in the right direction. This should be seriously considered. But, again, this is unlikely to happen with the current Republican legislature.

On voting rights, like other issues, it is clear which party cares about people and is trying to make things better. Protecting voting rights will require Wisconsin citizens to pressure the uncooperative Republican controlled legislature to act responsibly.