Friday, October 10, 2008

The ACLU of Wisconsin jumps into the voter registration lawsuit debate

This week, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and the Voting Rights Project of the national ACLU signed a "friend of the court" brief (it’s a good read, I promise) in support of the Wisconsin State Government Accountability Board’s (GAB) motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen. The lawsuit, filed in the Dane County Circuit Court on September 10, would demand that all voters’ registration records be cross-checked with the Department of Transportation database dating back to January 1, 2006. The lawsuit has been a prominent controversy in the news and has garnered strong reactions from clean government advocacy groups and city clerks alike.

Why the lawsuit is bad for voters
Not only does the lawsuit cast doubt about the security of their registration into the minds of the most loyal, consistent voters in the state, but such efforts to “fight voter fraud” can easily turn into barriers for many eligible electors. Read this excellent Wisconsin State Journal article that reveals why such disfranchisement isn’t about people who are too dumb to follow the rules: flawed databases and voting rights barriers disproportionately impact the elderly, the poor and students.

For an excellent summary and timeline of the controversy, read this WSJ article to understand the big picture. The GAB responded to the AG’s lawsuit on the day the suit was filed. In their statement, the GAB pointed out that Van Hollen’s proposed requirements would boot out over a fifth of voters from eligibility due to typos and no-matches. Even four out of six of the GAB members’ names (retired judges) would be no-matches.

Some pre-lawsuit history
More of the backstory of this controversy lies in the previous request by the Republican Party of Wisconsin to the GAB to cross-check registrations and to require anyone with a no-match to bring proof of ID/residence to the polls on Election Day. Provisional ballots would be then given to those who did not have such ID and would only count if the voter went back to the clerk’s office with proof by the end of the next day. Provisional ballots have been controversial with voter roll purges in the previous two presidential elections. The GAB didn’t accept this proposal and instead decided on a more deliberative approach to keep cross-checking records but not booting out no-matches.

Absentee ballot request mailing “mistakes” and database errors
More related news involves last month’s absentee ballot request mailing "mistakes" by the McCain campaign and the state Republican Party. Several voters reported to the GAB that they were receiving ballot requests with the incorrect clerk’s return address. It’s funny that in recent articles (Cap Times and the State Journal) a spokesperson from the Republican Party was quoted denying that McCain campaign applications for absentee ballots sent to voters with the incorrect clerk’s return address were sent on purpose, Wisconsin state Republican Party Executive Director Mark Jefferson said “you do the best with the lists you have - no list is perfect.” Maybe he should have a talk with our Attorney General about databases and mistakes?

Voices of opposition
Many organizations and editorial boards are weighing in on why this situation is bad for voters, bad for government and shows a conflict of interest on the side of the Attorney General (who is also the chairman of the McCain campaign in Wisconsin). Here is just a sample of the flood of opposition to this ill-timed and potentially disfranchising lawsuit.

League of Women Voters - opposes "a rule that will disenfranchise people just because at some time in their lives, their data was entered somewhat differently into two different databases."

One Wisconsin Now - "Van Hollen is doing the bidding of the Republican Party to compromise the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of legal Wisconsin voters."

La Crosse Tribune - "We should not allow such blatant partisanship when it comes to the right to vote."

Green Bay Gazette - the state must fight voter fraud, but "if the lawsuit can stand on its merits, it can do so without Van Hollen. He needs to remove himself from this case."

Sheboygan Press - The lawsuit is "nothing more than partisan politics hiding behind the guise of vote integrity."

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign - "The attorney general’s lawsuit is a solution in search of a problem."

Judge’s decision and timeline
A Dane County judge said at the initial hearing on September 24 that Van Hollen may remain on the court case, despite the fact that his office is involved in other cases on behalf of the GAB. Hearings for motions in the case will be made as late as October 23, bringing into question whether or not the GAB could possibly comply with a full database check by the November 4 election. Regardless, voters have valid worries about long lines and challenges to their right to vote.

What you can do
Don’t panic: Check your status in the statewide voter database. If your registration isn’t up to date, contact your city clerk’s office directly to fix the information. Same-day voter registration is still a part of Wisconsin elections, so if you think there may be a question of your records you can always be prepared to register when you vote.