Fighting For The Rights Of Wisconsin Voters

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 05: Voters take to the polls at Charles Allis Art Museum April 5, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both Re
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 05: Voters take to the polls at Charles Allis Art Museum April 5, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both Republican and Democratic voters cast their votes in today's presidential primaries. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Just two days before the final presidential debate, when Donald Trump shocked the country by refusing to accept the outcome of the vote in advance, he offered a preview of this corrosive rhetoric in our home state. At a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Republican nominee decried a "rigged election," alleged that "tremendous voter fraud" was occurring, and said "illegal immigrants are voting all over the country"--claims with no basis in fact.

But there's a real threat to fair elections, one that bears no relation to Trump's imagination. Ironically, it owes to new voting restrictions pushed by his own party in 14 states, including Wisconsin. These cynical Republican tactics, coupled with Trump's apparent encouragements of voter intimidation, have led us to call upon the Department of Justice to oversee election monitoring in our state and provide us with federal observers before November 8th.

It's almost hard to recall, but before Wisconsin's recent assault on voting rights, our state was a national leader in broad civic engagement. In 2012, while Wisconsin's discriminatory 2011 voter ID law was blocked by courts on constitutional grounds, our state boasted the second-highest turnout for the presidential elections in the country--73 percent--and policies like same-day registration contributed to nationwide recognition of our democratic values.

This election season, Wisconsin has been thrust into the national spotlight for less-flattering reasons. Republican lawmakers' renewed efforts to dismantle early voting, reduce the number of voting sites, and impose discriminatory voter ID laws led comedian John Oliver to point out that Wisconsin, along with Alabama and Mississippi, kept fewer than half of its voter ID-issuing offices open five days a week. Oliver even created an expletive-filled mnemonic device for voters in Sauk City, whose ID office, shockingly, was only open on the fifth Wednesday of every month.

And for what? In signing the voter ID measure into law in 2011, Governor Scott Walker claimed that it "protects the integrity of every single vote." Yet as in every state pursuing new voting restrictions, Republican officials "could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past," a federal judge noted in 2014.

In fact, prior to 2011, "Wisconsin had an exemplary election system that produced high levels of voter participation without significant irregularities," confirmed U.S. District Judge James Peterson in July. The state's "preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud" actually led to "real incidents of disenfranchisement." Judge Peterson declared Wisconsin's ID Petition Process an unconstitutional, "wretched failure" that deprived the rights of "citizens who are unquestionably qualified to vote, and these disenfranchised citizens are overwhelmingly African American and Latino."

Yet months after his ruling and just days before the election, groundbreaking reporting from The Nation and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, using evidence collected by the advocacy group VoteRiders, revealed that state employees were still providing false information to those seeking voter ID cards. Voters with valid credentials were being turned away without recourse. "I'm very disappointed to see that the state really did nothing in response to my order," replied Judge Peterson.

This is a terrifying new climate, reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, in which state lawmakers feel emboldened to ignore federal directives to protect voters. Indeed, the GOP's attachment to voter suppression has become so shameless that several of its leaders have publicly acknowledged what was once quietly understood: it yields electoral benefits for their candidates.

If the past is any guide, however, attempts to suppress the vote of the growing number of Americans who refuse to tolerate bigotry and prejudice will not succeed. Today, our electorate is more forward-looking than ever before. Changing demographics, an evolving culture, and creative organizing have led Blacks, Latinos, women, working people, and LGBTQ members to achieve a greater voice in shaping the direction of our country. Rather than adapt to this political landscape, however, Republicans seem to prefer curtailing voting rights as a way to cling to power.

In advance of Election Day, we will use the full weight of our roles as U.S. Representatives to fight for the constitutional rights of Wisconsin voters--particularly people of color, young people, low-income individuals, and senior citizens most at risk of disenfranchisement. We are urging the Department of Justice to send monitors to closely observe voting conditions as Wisconsin Republicans continue foot-dragging on reforming a voter ID law that targets hundreds of thousands of voters.

And as we prepare to go to the polls on November 8th, we ask all Wisconsinites to reject the poisonous atmosphere being created by the Republican front-runner, who recently told a nearly all-white audience that it was "so important that you watch other communities, because we don't want this election stolen from us." Don't be deterred by this intimidation: register to vote. The stakes in this election are just too high to let bigoted rhetoric and policies undermine our democracy.