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Opponents question state election reform bill

Jun. 4, 2013
 

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MADISON — A sweeping Republican bill designed to reinstate voter photo identification requirements in Wisconsin would force poor people to humiliate themselves at the polls and scale back absentee voting opportunities, opponents warned during a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday.

Rep. Jeff Stone’s bill would make a host of changes to state election law. A key provision would allow voters to opt out of showing photo IDs at the polls if they swear before the chief inspector and sign an affidavit saying they’re poor and can’t obtain identification without paying a fee; have a religious objection to being photographed; or can’t obtain the proper documents needed to acquire photo identification.

Stone, R-Greendale, told the Assembly election committee during Tuesday’s hearing that the provisions are designed to overcome a court decision nullifying voter ID requirements in Wisconsin. The state Justice Department is appealing the decision, which said that the law substantially impairs poor people’s rights to vote, noting birth certificates are needed to obtain the IDs and voters who lack the certificates must pay to obtain them.

A state appeals court last week reversed another decision that found the requirements were unconstitutional. Two other lawsuits are still pending.

Critics tore into the bill during Tuesday’s hearing, saying it would embarrass poor people. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, tried to tamp down that contention, insisting a person would simply swear his or her affidavit is true.

“You don’t stand up there and say, ‘I swear that I’m poor,’” Vos said.

Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters Wisconsin chapter, maintained the bill requires exactly that.

“This can be humiliating to take an oath in front of your neighbors about your financial status,” she said.

The bill makes a number of other changes, including setting uniform hours for in-person absentee voting statewide that would exclude weekends. Voters could make appointments with clerks to vote in-person after hours.

Officials in Milwaukee County, a Democratic stronghold, allowed in-person absentee voting throughout the Memorial Day weekend during the recall effort against Republican Gov. Scott Walker last year; Vos told the committee the state needs one set of hours so everyone is operating on the same playing field.

But Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, a committee member, said lines are often long in his city’s wards and extra time for voting helps the process. Kaminski argued people often find evenings and weekends more convenient for voting.

“This bill,” she said in written remarks, “limits the ability of local clerks to provide services to their constituents.”

Stone introduced the bill Friday. Committee Democrats urged Republicans to slow down, saying they need more time to digest the provisions and pointing out the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees Wisconsin elections, hasn’t had a chance to develop any estimates on how much the bill might cost.

But Vos told the committee he wants the Assembly to vote on the measure before the Legislature adjourns for its summer recess at the end of June. That would set up a vote in the Senate this fall, giving election workers time to adjust ahead of the 2014 spring elections, he said.

“I’ve been waiting for 4 ½ years for election reform,” Ardis Cerny of Pewaukee, a close observer of elections who supports photo ID as a means to combat fraud, told the committee. “I say bring it on. It’s about time.”

Ada Ruiz, a 28-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison student, attended the hearing with a giant sign that read “Voters Rights 2013 No Vote Left Behind.” She told a reporter outside the hearing room that GOP lawmakers are trying to make people jump through hoops to vote.

“It’s just getting crazier,” she said. “I’m just afraid everyday Americans are going to feel robbed. They’re going to wonder why I can’t vote anymore.”

Bernier initially said during the hearing she planned to have the committee vote on the measure Thursday, clearing the way for a full vote in the Assembly. But she told a reporter late Tuesday she planned to postpone the vote until next week. She said she’d like to make some tweaks to the measure, including making the oaths “less noticeable.”

The committee on Tuesday also reviewed a proposed GOP amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution that would bar voters from recalling state officeholders unless they’ve been charged with a felony or an ethics violation. Stone’s bill includes an identical requirement for local recalls. Current state law doesn’t require voters to supply a reason for a state or local recall effort.

The measures come after Democrats forced a dozen GOP officeholders, including Walker, into recalls in 2011 and 2012 after they passed the governor’s contentious legislation stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, one of the amendment’s chief sponsors, was one of four GOP senators who survived a recall in 2011. She told the committee officeholders shouldn’t face recalls for making tough policy decisions.

Kessler said the proposals would strip voters of their right to express their anger with politicians.

Bernier said she wasn’t sure when the committee might vote on the amendment, which would send it to the full Assembly. The proposal must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum before it can take effect.

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