On April 5, the day of Wisconsin’s presidential primary, Anita Johnson picked up Dennis Hatten at his new apartment in West Milwaukee and took him to the polls. “We’re going to complete your journey and make sure you vote today,” Johnson told him.
Simply being able to vote in Wisconsin was no small feat for Hatten, a 53-year-old former Marine. He’d met Johnson, a 70-year-old Wisconsin coordinator for VoteRiders, in August 2015, as the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Hatten was living in temporary housing for homeless veterans across the street from Milwaukee’s VA hospital. Wisconsin’s strict new voter-ID law would be going into effect in 2016, and Johnson was part of the effort to help 300,000 registered voters without an acceptable government-issued ID obtain one—9 percent of the electorate.
Hatten had relocated to Wisconsin from Illinois in 2013. His Illinois driver’s license and veterans’ ID card were not accepted as valid voter IDs in Wisconsin, so he asked Johnson for assistance getting a photo-ID card from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. “I grew up in the 1960s in the segregated South, and I remember what my parents and grandparents had to go through to vote,” Hatten says. “As soon as I became of age to vote, I voted in every election and urged others to vote, too.”
It took Johnson six months to get Hatten a state photo ID because, like many African Americans born in the Jim Crow South, he didn’t have a birth certificate, and the DMV rejected his initial application. He took his new ID to the polls, but the address on it didn’t match his new address, which the poll workers needed to register him at the site (Wisconsin is one of 14 states with Election Day registration). While Hatten conferred with the poll worker, another man who tried to register with his veterans’ ID was turned away.
After a lengthy conversation with election officials, Hatten went back to his apartment and retrieved a utility bill with his new address. After waiting patiently in line while Johnson looked on nervously, he was finally able to cast a ballot. “I’ve never had any problems voting until I came to Wisconsin,” Hatten said, holding up his “I Voted” sticker. “If someone didn’t know the law like I did, they would’ve walked away from the voting booth.”
In fact, many Wisconsinites who didn’t have Johnson’s help or Hatten’s perseverance were blocked from the polls. Their experiences offered a striking rejoinder to Governor Scott Walker’s contention that the state’s voter-ID law “works just fine.” Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., a 58-year-old African American who had moved from Illinois to Milwaukee, brought his expired Illinois photo ID, birth certificate, and Social Security card to get a photo ID for voting, but the DMV rejected his application because his birth certificate read “Eddie Junior Holloway,” the result of a clerical error. Holloway spent $200 on a bus ticket to Illinois to try to amend his birth certificate and made seven trips to government agencies in two different states, but he still couldn’t vote in the Wisconsin primary. To date, the state’s DMV has rejected nearly a fifth of all applicants for a voter ID, 85 percent of whom were African American, Latino, or Native American.
“This is the worst election I’ve ever seen in Wisconsin,” said Johnson, who’s lived in Milwaukee her whole life. “I go to bed thinking we’ve settled something, and I wake up and there’s something else.”
In addition to the voter-ID law, since 2011, Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled legislature has cut the early-voting window from 30 days to 12, eliminated night and weekend voting, banned straight-ticket voting, made it more difficult both to register to vote and to cast an absentee ballot, and tightened residency requirements. It has also disbanded the widely respected nonpartisan agency that oversees state elections and was supposed to educate the public about the voter-ID law. University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden calls it “death by a thousand cuts.”
Many GOP-controlled states have restricted access to the ballot following Barack Obama’s election, but Wisconsin is especially notable because, unlike Alabama or Texas, it has a long history of high voter turnout, pioneering election reforms, and commitment to good governance.
Indeed, in 2008 and 2012, Wisconsin trailed only one state—Minnesota—in voter turnout. The two states are practically twins, with nearly identical demographics, geography, and cultural history. Both states have a long-standing progressive tradition dating back more than a century, from Wisconsin Governor Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette to Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. In the 1970s, they were also the first states to allow Election Day registration, which has significantly boosted turnout. “Demographers call it the ‘civic-responsibility belt,’” says Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But the two states have clashed sharply in recent years, becoming case studies in the difference between Democratic and Republican rule. Whereas Wisconsin elected Walker and a GOP legislature in 2010, Minnesota narrowly elected Mark Dayton, and two years later a Democratic legislature. Minnesota raised taxes on the wealthy, invested in public education, expanded health care, and boosted unions, while Wisconsin did the opposite. Now Minnesota is winning the border war, with faster job growth, higher wages, and lower unemployment.
Nowhere is this difference starker than in the states’ approaches to voting. In contrast to Wisconsin, Minnesota defeated a high-profile voter-ID ballot initiative in 2012; recently passed legislation switching from a caucus system to a presidential primary, which is more inclusive; and is considering new reforms, such as restoring voting rights to 47,000 people on probation or parole. “Wisconsin is heading toward Alabama and Mississippi status,” says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, “while Minnesota is leading the nation on expanding voting rights.”
The divide illustrates how the United States is fast becoming a two-tiered democracy, a country where it’s harder to vote in Republican-controlled states and easier to vote in Democratic ones. There are some notable exceptions—New York, a blue state, ranked 47th in the Pew Charitable Trust’s 2012 Elections Performance Index, while North Dakota, a red state, ranked No. 1—but the trend is unmistakable. Of the 22 states that have passed new voting restrictions since 2010, more than 80 percent were under Republican control, while the states, such as Oregon and California, that have recently passed ambitious reforms like automatic voter registration are overwhelmingly Democratic.
With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the country committed itself to ensuring voting rights for all Americans, regardless of race, party, or region. Now this consensus has been shattered, with ruthless partisanship undermining the most basic of democratic rights.
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Todd Allbaugh became a Republican in 1980, when he was in the fifth grade, after meeting his local GOP chairman. He still has a Ronald Reagan poster with the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Allbaugh worked for Representative Steve Gunderson, the first openly gay Republican in Congress, and then became chief of staff for State Senator Dale Schultz, whom the Madison Capital Times called “the last remaining moderate Republican in the state legislature.”
“In the 1980s and ’90s, when I went to Republican conventions, I heard about the need to create a bigger tent, to bring new people into the party,” Allbaugh says. Republicans controlled the state government during much of that time but never passed laws limiting the ability to vote.
He received a rude awakening when he attended a closed-door meeting of the State Senate’s Republican caucus in 2011. It was considering the new voter-ID bill, a top priority for Wisconsin Republicans since the 2000 and ’04 presidential elections, which the GOP lost by less than 1 percent. The party blamed the losses (without evidence) on voter fraud by Democrats in Milwaukee, along with a high turnout among black and young voters.
“We’ve got to think about what this could mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses around the state,” said State Senator Mary Lazich. Seventy percent of Wisconsin’s black population, which voted for Obama over Mitt Romney 94 to 6 percent, lives in Milwaukee, while 18- to 24-year-olds favored Obama over Romney by 26 points.
Schultz asked his colleagues to consider not whether the bill would help the GOP, but how it would impact the voting rights of Wisconsinites. Then-State Senator Glenn Grothman cut him off: “What I’m concerned about is winning. We better get this done while we have the opportunity.” (When asked during the state’s April 5 primary why Republicans would carry Wisconsin in 2016, Grothman, who had since been elected to the US Congress, replied: “Now we have photo ID.”) In a federal voting-rights case, Allbaugh named two other GOP senators who were “giddy” and “politically frothing at the mouth” over the bill.
“It made me physically ill,” Allbaugh says. “It was like a gut punch. I never thought, after all the years of dedicating my life to helping advance the Republican Party, that I would sit in a meeting of Republican officials and hear them openly plotting to impede another citizen’s voting rights.”
Schultz voted for the bill reluctantly, but his concern grew when Republicans passed another law in 2014 eliminating early voting at night and on weekends; some 250,000 Wisconsinites had voted early in 2012, favoring Obama over Romney by 58 to 41 percent.
Grothman, the author of the bill, said he wanted to “nip” early voting “in the bud” before it spread from Democratic strongholds like Madison and Milwaukee. The county clerk of Waukesha County, a Milwaukee suburb that is 95 percent white and staunchly conservative, insisted that early voting gave “too much access” to voters in Milwaukee and Madison.
Schultz asked Allbaugh to find three documented cases of voter fraud in the state. But Allbaugh could only find two instances of double voting—both, ironically, committed by Republicans. Neither case would have been stopped by a voter-ID law or was related to early voting.
Schultz sharply criticized his party’s voting restrictions before retiring from the legislature in 2014. “We should be pitching, as political parties, our ideas for improving things in the future rather than mucking around in the mechanics and making it more confrontational at our voting sites and trying to suppress the vote,” he said. Allbaugh quit politics and opened a coffee shop in Madison. He decided to go public when a young employee from California couldn’t vote in Wisconsin’s primary because his California driver’s license wasn’t an acceptable form of voter ID and his birth certificate was in California.
The GOP’s past support for voting rights can be exaggerated—only two Republicans in the state legislature voted for Election Day registration in 1975, for example—but it’s also a key part of Wisconsin’s progressive history. In the early 1900s, Governor La Follette supported women’s suffrage and the direct election of presidential nominees, rather than their selection by party bosses. More recently, GOP Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner led the effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006; he’s one of the few Republicans working to restore the law after the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013. “I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it,” Sensenbrenner wrote in The New York Times in March.
Only 14 congressional Republicans have cosponsored Sensenbrenner’s Voting Rights Amendment Act. The aggressive gerrymandering in Wisconsin helps explain the party’s increasingly radical conservatism. Unlike in Minnesota, where a court drew a map fair to both parties because of divided government, Republicans controlled Wisconsin’s redistricting process for the first time in 50 years and, in 2010, cunningly manipulated boundaries to maintain their power for the next decade and beyond. In 2012, Obama carried the state by seven points, yet Republicans won more than half of Wisconsin’s House, State Senate, and State Assembly districts. Just 10 percent of legislative seats are now considered competitive, giving the GOP a seemingly airtight majority.
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In the spring of 2011, Minnesota’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a strict voter-ID bill much like Wisconsin’s. Governor Dayton, who noted that his predecessors had refused to sign any election-law changes that didn’t have bipartisan support, vetoed it. Republicans responded by putting a constitutional amendment requiring photo ID on the 2012 ballot.
Initial polling showed that 80 percent of Minnesotans supported the law, including 64 percent of Democrats. “I would say [80 percent] is probably as close to certainty as you may hope to get in regards to the passage of a constitutional amendment,” said the bill’s author, Representative Mary Kiffmeyer.
Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, was given the unenviable task of defeating the ballot initiative. McGrath grew up in Wausau, Wisconsin, before moving to the Twin Cities for college, and he knew that Minnesota was perilously close to emulating Walker’s Wisconsin. “Nearly everyone in the state believed a photo ID was the most common-sense solution to the problem of voter fraud,” McGrath says. “We needed to reframe the issue. We decided to never say the word ‘fraud’; instead we would only talk about the cost, complications, and consequences of the amendment.”
Eighty groups representing 1 million members, from the AARP to the AFL-CIO to the League of Women Voters, formed a massive coalition—Our Vote, Our Future—to defeat the amendment. They highlighted the stories of the 250,000 voters who could be disenfranchised by the law: not just young people and minorities, but also seniors and members of the military. One TV ad featured a young Iraq War vet, Alex Erickson, saying: “The voter-restriction amendment might seem like a good idea, but when the legislature put it on the ballot, they screwed it up. To them, military IDs aren’t valid IDs. Which means that this amendment takes away a basic freedom from those who gave a whole lot.”
The coalition also stressed how the law would cost up to $40 million, endanger the state’s very popular Election Day registration system, and make it harder for rural voters to cast a ballot—arguments that appealed to independents and moderates.
One defining TV spot featured Dayton and former governor Arne Carlson, a Republican, standing in front of the state capitol. “This voter-restriction amendment is way too costly,” Carlson said. “And it will keep thousands of seniors from voting,” Dayton added. “If you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent, please vote no—this is not good for Minnesota,” Carlson said in closing. Such an ad would be inconceivable in Wisconsin.
In addition to the voter-ID amendment, Republicans put an amendment on the ballot to ban same-sex marriage, which rallied progressive voters against both initiatives under the slogan “Minnesota Nice: Vote No Twice.” “At every marriage-equality rally, we talked about voting,” recalls Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison. “At every voting rally, we talked about marriage equality.”
Our Vote, Our Future contacted more than 400,000 people about the amendment and changed the minds of nearly 1 million voters—an incredible organizing feat. On Election Day, 54 percent of Minnesotans opposed the voter-ID amendment, a wider margin than the one for Obama or against the same-sex marriage ban. It was the first time that a voter-ID law had been defeated at the ballot box.
There wasn’t one single reason why the amendment was defeated, but the general consensus was that making it harder to vote would imperil all of the qualities that had long made Minnesota, like Wisconsin in the days before Walker, a laboratory for progressive government. “When we treat democracy as its own discrete issue area, we’re bound to lose,” McGrath says. “When we connect a functioning democracy as an essential means to a greater end—higher wages, racial equality, income equality—that’s when it becomes an inspiring fight.”
The defeat of the voter-ID amendment ended the voting wars in Minnesota, at least for now. “The debate has been more or less settled here,” says Secretary of State Steve Simon. “Having lived through this 2012 upheaval, I’d hope that some people have learned their lesson about rash attacks on the right to vote.” The defeat also made it easier to pass progressive policies in many other areas. “There’s just no way that Minnesota would have made the advances it has if voter ID had passed,” McGrath says. “Expanding public health care, raising the minimum wage, banning the criminal-history box for job applicants, raising taxes in a progressive way—they would not have happened, because the political voice of those people directly impacted would all but have been eliminated. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that.” Finally, the amendment’s resounding defeat offers a road map for combating similar measures in other states, like Missouri. “It’s important that people who believe in voting rights know that you can win,” Ellison says.
Even so, winning on voting rights will be harder in 2016. This is the first presidential election in 50 years in which voters cannot rely on the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, and 17 states have new restrictions in place for the first time. In our two-tiered democracy, the gulf that separates states like Wisconsin and Minnesota is only getting larger.