Wisconsin Wants You to Register to Vote—Unless You’re Poor, or a Person of Color

By Marissa Liebling February 5, 2016

Partisan lawmakers in Wisconsin are pushing a voter registration bill that is a thinly veiled attack on voter registration drives and the rising American electorate.

Wisconsin_State_AssemblySB295 (Amendment 1)—just approved by the state Senate Elections Committee in a party-line vote—is being sold as an “online voter registration” bill, as it would make Wisconsin the latest state where citizens can register to vote over the Internet.

Project Vote strongly supports online registration, but it is a convenience, not a cure-all: unless it is implemented hand-in-hand with other registration options and protections, it can make existing inequalities in the electorate even worse. 

And these Wisconsin lawmakers, while offering online registration with one hand, are quietly taking those other options away with the other.

SB295 would implement online registration, but only for people who have Internet access and a valid, up-to-date ID through the DMV. Studies have proven that this leaves out a large percentage of the population, particularly young people, older people, poor people, persons with disabilities, and disproportionate numbers of people of color.

And there are several other provisions buried deeper in the bill that could prove disastrous for registration equality in Wisconsin. For example, SB295 requires rejecting absentee ballots for minor, technical defaults. It also makes the window for absentee voting much shorter: the current laws allow ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, but the new law says they would only count if they are received by Election Day.

Most disturbing, however, is that SB295 would entirely do away with “special registration deputies.”

This—in Wisconsin—is code for “no more voter registration drives.”

Make no mistake, this bill is just the latest attack on one of the most lasting and vital legacies of the Civil Rights movement: the patriotic act of canvassing neighborhoods and helping community members register to vote. Wisconsin is one of several states that has, since 2008, been invoking misleading and disproven claims about “voter fraud” as a smokescreen for attempts to put voter registration drives out of business.

And it’s no coincidence that the populations most likely to register through such drives—low-income Americans, Latinos, and African-Americans—are those less likely to have current state IDs, and those helped least by online registration. It seems certain lawmakers would prefer these residents didn’t register to vote at all.

Several years ago, Florida enacted a law that made it harder to conduct registration drives, forcing voter registration drives out of business and reducing registration rates dramatically. The League of Women Voters was forced to suspend their registration efforts in Florida for the first time in nearly 100 years.

Wisconsin’s proposed law is even more blatant about shutting down drives. “There’s all sorts of new obstacles that would be created without on-the-street deputized folks,” Debra Cronmiller, president of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, has said of the proposed law.

Online registration is a good thing, but the price is much too high with SB295. Voter registration drives—whether conducted by community organizations, churches, or veterans’ groups— are the lifeblood of the grassroots fight for equality, and Wisconsin lawmakers must reject this cynical attempt to destroy them. Wisconsin must not turn voter registration into a privilege of the few, instead of a right shared by all.

UPDATE: Project Vote and several local and national civil rights groups submitted a letter to the state senators on February 9, urging them not to support SB295.