Wisconsin will soon have the what's arguably the nation's most restrictive voter ID law. The bill was passed through the the Republican-led Senate late last week and is expected be signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday. Voter rights advocates are worried that the new bill will keep some of the Democratic party's key constituents away from the polls in 2012. And as more bills sweep across the country, concern is growing over the GOP's push to fix a problem that, statistically, just doesn't exist.
But that wasn't a concern of Republican Governor Scott Walker last week when the bill passed the state Senate. "Requiring a photo identification to vote will go a long way to eliminate the threat of voter fraud," Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal. "If you need an ID to buy cold medicine, it's reasonable to require it to vote."
The law is one of many that Republican lawmakers are pushing to confront the phantom threat of voter fraud. At least 22 other states are considering similar legislation. In each state, Republicans lead with the battle cry that a sacred tenant of our Democracy is under threat from hordes of ineligible voters flooding the polls. The problem, say some advocates, is that it's just not true.
"Everyone wants clean and fair elections," says Karlo Barrios Marcelo, a political strategist and former researcher for CIRCLE. "When you start looking into where there are mistakes in the system, it's not voter fraud." Instead, Marcelo says that the efforts are largely political maneuvers targeted at substantially decreasing the political power of younger voters, who tend to be more progressive, and older ones, who are increasingly unhappy with Republican efforts to dismantle Medicaid.
Statistics also show that voter fraud is much less of a threat than Republicans make it seem. A 2007 study released by Brennan Center for Justice revealed that potential voters are unlikely to be found committing voter fraud. "It's more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls," the study's authors wrote.
But the battle over the legitimacy of voter IDs is significant in Wisconsin. It's historically been a swing state that's had high levels of voter engagement, particularly among young voters and those of color. Back in November, I reported from Milwaukee that the state's powerful crop of young black voters were busy forging their own political paths. The latest Census numbers showed that black youth had the highest turnout among voters of any ethnic group aged 18-24, and nearly two million more voted in 2008 than in 2004. Wisconsin was among the highest youth voter turnouts in the country.
Many people are worried that that sort of consistent voter turnout is in jeopardy because the new voter ID laws will make it too costly to go to the polls. "What it does is it puts the onus on the citizens to do all this legwork, when really voting is a right put into the Constitution," Marcelo said. And that legwork, he says, doesn't stop at the price of getting a new ID, which can range in price up to $50. It also requires people to take time off of work or school to stand in line at their local DMV, and the price may increase if a person needs supporting documents, like a birth certificate. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that if the bill becomes law, it could cost more than $5.7 million to implement, according to the Journal.
For organizers at The League of Young Voters, a civic engagement group that works primarily with low-income youth voters in and around Milwaukee, the bill's passage came as no surprise. They've already been organizing and building a local coalition for months to help get young people ID's.
Rob "Biko" Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters, says that the numbers tell the story. Only 25 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Latinos in Milwaukee County have valid licences, compared to 71 percent of young white adults elsewhere in the state, according to a 2005 report from the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
Those statistics, he says, are crucial to seeing the bigger picture, one that has very little to do with partisan politics. "This is about voter suppression. When our folks can't vote, we can't influence the political agenda," Baker says. "What's at stake is democracy."