After several years of experience as an election worker at a busy polling place, I was surprised to find myself dreading Wisconsin's spring primary. Sadly, running elections has grown more daunting with every new voting law passed by the legislature, especially the new photo ID requirement and voter registration rules. Not surprisingly, both voters and poll workers are confused.
Confusion makes my job much harder and less rewarding, but -- far more important -- voter confusion is the enemy of a healthy democracy. The need for public confidence in fair and impartial elections is at the very heart of why I choose to volunteer as a poll worker. I want voters to have confidence in my knowledge of new procedures. I want to serve them well so they enjoy exercising their right to vote. I don't want them to stand in long lines or feel scrutinized as if they were passing through an airport security checkpoint.
Most of all, I hate telling young voters that their student photo IDs are not on Wisconsin's very short and very specific list of approved forms of voter identification. To them, I apologize and say, "Please promise me you'll get the proper ID and come back. I want you to be able to vote."
My polling place is located in a large Madison retirement community. I recognize most who live and vote there, longtime voters who often sign their names in the poll book with a shaky hand. Many are not able to drive, so they let their driver's licenses expire. If the license expiration date is before Nov. 4, 2014, it is not approved for voting. What do I tell a voter I know well? I have to tell him it makes no difference that his name is in our poll book, that he lives in this building and he has always voted faithfully.
All I can do is let voters lacking an approved photo ID know that they can still "vote" by casting a provisional ballot and presenting the city clerk with the proper ID within three days. But what good is a vote if it's not counted? Of the 123 provisional ballots cast citywide on April 5 by voters without proper identification, only 41 were counted in the end. The rushed process of obtaining a proper ID and getting to City Hall is an obstacle that two-thirds of our provisional voters couldn't surmount. Tragically, that obstacle was put in place despite overwhelming evidence that voter impersonation is essentially non-existent. How can I possibly feel good about my job when the voices of legitimate voters are silenced?
On Election Day, 24,625 voters registered at the 87 polling places in Madison, thanks to Wisconsin's same-day registration option. I usually spend most of my time assisting long lines at the registration table, but I find that task is now more complicated and even troubling.
For instance, I'm very uncomfortable with current requirements for recording a voter's proof of address. I don't think most Wisconsin banks and businesses realize that registrars must write down the last few digits of people's account numbers when they register them to vote. I know banks and businesses respect their customers' privacy. I know they would not release information to an official in order to verify a voter's address without a court order. So why all the busy work? A few minutes collecting useless information on registration forms, multiplied by 24,625 Election Day registrations in Madison alone, adds up to needless delays that discourage voting.
To make matters worse, Wisconsin legislators cut early voting hours in half and eliminated early voting on evenings and weekends, creating yet more pressure at the polls on election days.
Do you see why I've come to dread my job? I'd like to anticipate the November presidential election with excitement. Instead, I'm upset and worried.
Like Wisconsin, many states have recently passed restrictive voting laws. They include photo ID laws, voter purges, cutbacks in early voting and voter registration drives, the end of same-day registration and more. These measures are undermining faith in our democracy, even as some courts are upholding them.
Congress could help by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act and modernizing voting laws for the challenges voters face today. Meanwhile, I have a suggestion for Wisconsin legislators and their counterparts in other states: Why not spend a day as a poll worker before you pass more laws that create obstacles to voting?