From the Field

Fighting Voter Suppression in Wisconsin

Jill Garvey • Nov 06, 2012

In the 2008 election, Black women had the highest voter turnout rate, and one-in-four votes was cast by non-whites. It was the most racially and ethnically diverse election in U.S. history. For those who fear the changing face of America and its politics, this was devastating. So opponents of inclusive, multi-racial elections started plotting to make sure it didn’t happen again. In 2012 voter suppression measures are having a stunning impact on the voting rights of minority, poor, female, elderly and disabled citizens.

Conservative state lawmakers are implementing voter ID laws under the false pretense of preventing fraud by non-citizen immigrants. Legislators are using fears of a so-called immigrant “invasion” and piggybacking their efforts on the flood of anti-immigrant measures being debated in states like Arizona, Georgia and Alabama.

These laws may strip away your rights. Here are the facts according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice:

  • 32 million voting-age women may not meet voter ID requirements, due in large part to changing from maiden to married names.
  • At least 12% of voting-age American citizens earning less than $25,000 per year do not have a readily available U.S. passport, naturalization document, or birth certificate.
  • 18% of American citizens age 65 and above do not have current government-issued photo ID.
  • 25% of African-American voting-age citizens have no current government-issued photo ID.

In Wisconsin, a strict voter ID measure was passed that could have impacted more than 9 percent of registered voters in the state who lacked the necessary ID—over 300,000 people statewide. A judge who ruled against enacting the law pointed to the lack of fallback plans for those who could not obtain an ID, and noted that elderly and African American voters would be disproportionately affected.

Another judge ruled that the state’s voter ID law unconstitutional stating, “A government that undermines the very foundation of its existence – the people’s inherent, pre-constitutional right to vote – imperils its legitimacy as a government by the people, for the people, and especially of the people. It sows the seeds for its own demise as a democratic institution.”

The law may not have been enacted in time for this election, but it still poses a major threat to future ones. And that’s not all. According to New America Media, a Romney supporter paid for a “series of deceptive billboards that were posted in predominantly minority communities in Wisconsin proclaiming, “Voter fraud is a felony.” An investigation sparked by media coverage led to the billboards being removed. Recently the Romney campaign was accused of training poll watchers to provide inaccurate information on voter eligibility in Wisconsin.”

Below is the story of Wisconsin resident Bettye Jones’s fight to cast a vote in this year’s election. Bettye was born in the segregated south and was never issued a birth certificate. If Wisconsin’s voter ID measure had gone into effect her ability to vote would have been jeopardized. Bettye and her daughter, Debra Crawford, went on a quest to prove her citizenship. But that’s not all, Bettye joined forces with the Advancement Project and became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Sadly, Bettye passed away last week after a year of fighting to protect voting rights and a lifetime of fighting for civil rights.

In an editorial in The Atlantic entitled No One in America Should Have to Wait 7 Hours to Vote, Andrew Cohen opines, “Widespread “in-person” voter fraud or voting by illegal immigrants exists mostly in the minds of conspiracy theorists. Yet proof of voter suppression is visible to all of us with the naked eye. All we have to do is look. There is no political equivalence here — only more lamentable false equivalence. ”

Debates around voter ID and anti-immigrant laws are often framed as national security issues by their proponents, but the threat of these laws to many Americans is evident. And the threat to our democracy is immediate.

We can fight back. By raising up the legacy of folks like Bettye Jones and her daughter, and exposing those lawmakers and conservative groups behind voter suppression, we can ensure the rights of every eligible voter.

Bettye will be remembered as more than an inspiration. She will be remembered as a leader, a fighter, and a symbol of progress. Today, Bettye can’t vote. But her perseverance and courage ensure that many more of us can. Let’s keep up the fight long after this election has passed.

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