You are a new Governor pursuing a radical, budget slashing agenda. In your spare time, you work to pass the most restrictive Voter ID law in the nation, which turns out to be quite costly. What to do? Here is an idea. To pay for your voter suppression efforts, why not rob public financing for elections, a system designed to encourage a diversity of candidates and a flourishing of democracy?
That is exactly what Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the WI GOP did this week when they raided the money set aside for the public financing of campaigns to pay for “the most radical Voter ID bill in the nation” according to Wisconsin Common Cause.
The move would kill a 34 year tradition of public financing for elections in Wisconsin. All public financing for state political races would end. Instead the fund would be used to implement AB7 a “Voter ID” bill originally spawned by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Committee (ALEC).
The Allegation of Fraud is Merely a Front
Republicans insist the Voter ID bill is needed to prevent fraud, but no one appears to be able to put their finger on a real problem in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin Attorney General JB Van Hollen undertook an investigation after the 2008 presidential race and found only 20 questionable votes in an election of 2,983,417. Half of those folks were formerly convicted felons who did not know they were not allowed to vote,” said Jay Heck of Wisconsin Common Cause. “Fraud has never been a problem in Wisconsin, we have an open system and people have a great deal of respect for it. The fraud issue is merely a front to prevent democratic groupings from turning out and everyone knows it,” said Heck.
The legislation would allow a narrow list of IDs for voting, including drivers licenses and state issued ID cards. According to a 2005 UW-Milwaukee study, about 177,000 Wisconsinites aged 65 and older do not have state-issued IDs. Statewide, the percent of Wisconsin residents with a valid drivers license is 80 percent for males and 81 percent for females. For African-Americans, only 45 percent of males and 51 percent of females have a valid drivers license.
The bill makes it particularly burdensome for college students to vote, a group who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008. Student IDs have to be issued from an accredited public or private college, include a student's signature and have a two-year expiration date. The 182,000 thousand students in the UW system and 300,000 in state technical colleges currently do not meet this requirement.
Many analysts think the bill was implemented in a rush in order to have an impact on the Wisconsin Senate recall elections scheduled for July 12th. “Many voters will understandably be confused and will think that they cannot vote in the recall elections without the photo voter ID -- which is likely the intent of the bill's proponents,” says Heck.
Another Wisconsin Tradition Destroyed
Wisconsin has provided some degree of public financing for campaigns since 1977. The idea was to foster a debate over ideas, not a race for the money. As a consequence, many candidates were able to run that otherwise would never have been able to and candidates of both political parties regularly took public financing. This year, a little-known candidate named Joanne Kloppenburg was able to run for Supreme Court because of a public finance system for judicial races implemented two years ago. Kloppenburg came from behind to almost knock off a ten-year incumbent conservative Supreme Court Justice.
Perhaps this is exactly the type of democracy that the WI GOP is worried about. The money raided from the public financing system -- $1.8 million -- is insufficient to pay for the Voter ID bill, which is anticipated to cost $6 million over the next two years.
To Heck the tragedy is the destruction of another important Wisconsin tradition. “We were one of the first states in the nation to provide public financing for campaigns. We were held up as a model for the nation, passing public financing, open meetings laws, open records laws and the establishment of a state elections board and state ethics board after the Watergate scandal.”
“What the Walker administration has done in just four months, has been to unravel decades of good government and progressive reform designed to inspire citizen confidence in state government. The whole post-Watergate reform effort has been swept away in just a few months. It’s astonishing,” says Heck.
But enough to make Richard Nixon proud.