Today's primary election in Wisconsin will have special oversight from the Department of Justice. Wisconsin has been mired in a legal battle between Governor Scott Walker and a patch of county judges and civil rights group who have successfully fought and frozen the photo voter ID law passed by the legislature last year -- at the time one of the strictest in the nation. It's not clear why DOJ chose Milwaukee to monitor, or if it had anything to do with the current confusion around the voter ID law. The Justice Department released this statement late yesterday:
The Justice Department announced today that the Civil Rights Division will monitor the election on April 3, 2012, in Milwaukee. The monitoring will ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other federal voting rights statutes. The Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the election process on the basis of race, color or membership in a minority language group. In addition, the act requires certain covered jurisdictions to provide language assistance during the election process. The city of Milwaukee is required to provide assistance in Spanish.
"There is probably a lot of confusion about whether or not Voter ID is necessary for today's election, which could decrease voter turnout," said League of Young Voters spokesperson Sarah Stern when I asked her about it. "The DOJ's presence will help to clarify confusion about the law and hopefully decrease voter intimidation at the polls."
Stern also notes that DOJ's special mention about Spanish assistance probably has to do with the fact that 14 percent of Milwaukee speaks Spanish. A local Wisconsin media outlet reports today that DOJ has required bilingual staff "at more than five dozen polling sites to better serve Spanish-speaking voters," while monitoring those efforts.
Helping non-English speaking voters isn't the only reason why DOJ is in Wisconsin for voting problems, though. The Justice Department also announced yesterday that an agreement had been reached with Wisconsin election officials over a lawsuit regarding the failure of the state to send over 200 ballots to eligible military and overseas voters for today's primary. Wisconsin officials appear to have worked it out with DOJ, but Justice officials will be monitoring today anyway to make sure that those military and overseas voters receive ballots and that they are counted when they come in. Said DOJ's Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez:
"As this agreement demonstrates, we will remain steadfast in our efforts to ensure that members of our armed forces, their families and overseas citizens are offered a full and meaningful opportunity to vote in our nation's elections. I commend the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board and its executive director for working cooperatively with the department and agreeing to measures that will ensure Wisconsin's military and overseas voters will have a full opportunity to have their votes counted in the upcoming presidential primary election as well as in future federal elections."
There is far too much confusion going on in Wisconsin today spread between new redistricting laws, the on-or-off photo voter ID laws, and the lack of diligence in making sure military members and Spanish-speaking residents are able to vote. Note that Gov. Scott Walker is up against a recall election. Gov. Walker and his administration constantly beats the refrain of "preserving the integrity of elections," but the roll-out of today's primary shows that heavy monitoring, from the federal government and civil rights groups, will be necessary for that to happen.
Says League of Young Voters' Stern: "The DOJ has made voter protection in the U.S. one of their hallmark policies in the past year, whether that means fighting against discriminatory Voter ID laws or making sure that members of the armed forces actually get to vote. They understand that voter turnout is not low in this country because people don't WANT to vote. It's low because the process is not streamlined and voters worry that their vote won't count. That has to be counteracted if we want more people to participate in the democratic process. The first step is getting out the message that the DOJ is actively working to improve the current system."