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GOP Voter Suppression Comes to Wisconsin

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GOP Voter Suppression Comes to Wisconsin By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet
Posted on September 13, 2008, Printed on September 16, 2008

Partisan voter suppression efforts have many faces, but they all have one goal: suppressing your political opponent's voters.

In Wisconsin this past week, the Republican Attorney General, J.B. Van Hollen, filed a politically timed lawsuit that local election officials say will interfere with turnout for the presidential election on Nov. 4 and create a bureaucratic nightmare for election workers seeking to process a record number of new voter registrations before then. The AG's game plan is simple: create a bureaucratic nightmare to tie up the election machinery before Election Day and then create bottlenecks to confound voters on Election Day.

According to a Sept. 12 report by Steven Elbow at, the Wisconsin AG filed suit this past Wednesday forcing election officials to use a tactic being employed by Republicans in other states -- notably Michigan, Kansas and Louisiana -- that involves removing people from voter rolls if the addresses on their voter registration forms does not match the address on their state driver's licenses. The rationale to purge would be based on the assumption that if the addresses did not match then the voter registration would be incorrect and therefore invalid.

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Never mind that Wisconsin is among a handful of states where voters can register to vote on Election Day and ostensibly clear up or correct any registration information error at that time. The suit's goal is voter suppression, which would be accomplished by causing delays in voting when people show up on Election Day and are told they are not on voter rolls and then would have to go through the registration process, delaying them and holding up other voters in line behind them.

What's especially outrageous about this tactic in Wisconsin is that the very federal election law that makes this voter purging technique illegal in most states -- the National Voter Registration Act -- exempts Wisconsin from the NVRA's voter purging process because the state has Election Day Registration. In other words, because Wisconsin is among a handful of states with the most liberal, voter-friendly laws, its voters do not have the legal protections intended to stop voter suppression in other states.

Elbow's report on quotes that city's clerk about the impact of the AG's suit.

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"It will disenfranchise voters. That's what we're concerned about," City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said. "We're working on plans to make sure we don't have long lines at the polls, make sure that the lines can move smoothly and quickly. If we throw this into the mix, then it is going to slow things down."

The report reveals the Wisconsin AG is reading from a long-established GOP playbook, justifying 'ballot security' concerns under the banner of preventing voter fraud.

"Van Hollen spokesman Kevin St. John said Van Hollen wants the GAB to verify voters who registered by mail since Jan. 1, 2006, because they didn't have to show an ID," reported.

Imposing stricter voter ID laws has been the Republican legislative response to so-called Democratic voter fraud in recent years. The GOP defines this phenomena as hordes of Democrats posing as other voters and voting more than once to pad the vote count. While there are pre-existing election laws that ban such activity, and handfuls of prosecutions in states when people attempt to vote more then once, the Bush administration Justice Department has only prosecuted two dozen such cases despite devoting significant manpower hours by federal prosecutors to ferret out such abuse -- and even firing U.S. Attorneys who did not pursue such cases. The GOP strategy is based on identifying a handful of errors in filing new registration forms, a retail-level problem, if you will, and imposing a statewide response, a wholesale solution.

Stripped of discussing it in polite terms, it is akin to institutional racism -- since many of likely Democratic voters targeted by such ID laws are people of color, students and other under-represented sectors of the public.

The report says the state's election director, Kevin Kennedy, told the AG that "the (state election) board is committed to preventing voter fraud, but (said) Van Hollen's demands are too much, too soon."

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"The board believes it would be counter-productive to rush this effort and to create a significant risk, at best of unnecessary hardship and confusion at the polls, and at worst the disenfranchisement of Wisconsin citizens with a clear and legitimate right to vote," Kennedy said, in the report.

Thousands of voter registrations will likely be affected if a court approves the suit, the report said.

"As the election approaches, the phones at clerks' offices get busier, so people calling back to resolve discrepancies will be less likely to get through," the report said. "The closer we get to the election, the less time we have to clear things up," Witzel-Behl said.

The partisan nature of the AG's lawsuit was best expressed in a comment by Diane Hermann-Brown, Sun Prairie city clerk, who said the court needs to act quickly if it wants counties and municipalities to comply. "I don't think he's wrong on what he's doing," she said of Van Hollen. "It probably needs to get done. It just should have been done sooner."

Hermann-Brown's comment about the suit's timing underscores why this is a partisan action, not an exercise in good government.

Selective enforcement of voting rights laws is all about shaping election rules to one party's benefit. If the Wisconsin AG was so concerned about accurate voter registration rolls dating back to January 2006, one would think he would have acted sooner than 60 days before a presidential election. Something stinks in Wisconsin elections -- and it's not the cheese.

A court hearing is scheduled for later this week.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  and many newspapers. (more...)

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