The Voting Rights Act is on the ballot in Wisconsin this November 8. And what happens in Wisconsin may not stay in Wisconsin.
At the beginning of 2010, Wisconsin was a blue-leaning state. Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion, the legislature, both Senate seats, a majority of House seats, and had won the state’s 10 electoral votes six times in a row. Barack Obama beat John McCain by 14 points in 2008.
Everything changed after the low-turnout 2010 midterm election, when Republicans rode a national wave to retake the governor’s mansion and the state legislature.
The following year, Republicans put in place a gerrymander that continues to hold, thanks to Republican judges. The gerrymander allowed Republicans to turn Wisconsin into a voter suppression laboratory. With limited checks on their power, the GOP has pushed a series of laws to mold the electorate to their benefit by systematically diminishing the voice of voters of color.
Wisconsin Republicans started with one of the strictest voter ID bills in the nation. Based on a template created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (a right-wing corporate-funded lobbying group), the legislation was designed to have an inordinate impact on students and people of color.
According to the ACLU, one in four African-Americans lack photo identification, three times’ the rate of whites. Wisconsinites of color are also less likely to have the documents to obtain a photo ID. Todd Allbaugh, who worked for a GOP state senator at the time voter ID legislation was passed, later provided an unfiltered look at Republican motivations on a public Facebook post:
I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American's constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power.
While voter ID worked its way through the courts, Barack Obama won Wisconsin a second time, by over 200,000 votes. Obama was helped by extraordinary turnout in minority-majority Milwaukee, a city which is 38% Black. In the next year’s legislative session, Republicans got rid of early voting on evenings and weekends, which eliminated “Souls to the Polls” Sunday voting drives organized by African-American churches in Milwaukee and other urban areas of the state.
Voter ID premiered in 2016, the first presidential election after the Republican Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Turnout in Milwaukee’s African-American majority neighborhoods was down 22% from 2012 (as opposed to 8% in the rest of the city), a “significantly higher” drop than demographically similar neighborhoods next door in Minnesota, which did not have a voter ID law.
A study commissioned by Priorities USA, a Democratic Super Pac, estimated that the law had disenfranchised 200,000 Wisconsinites, a believable number since 300,000 citizens lacked the required identification. A much more conservative estimate from the University of Wisconsin found that voter ID disenfranchised at least 17,000 voters in Dane and Milwaukee counties alone. Donald Trump won Wisconsin by just over 22,000 votes.
Trump’s presidency led to a backlash in the 2018 midterms. Buoyed by record-high midterm turnout, Wisconsin Democrats won all statewide offices. Key to these victories was an aggressive early vote drive in Madison and Milwaukee, which allowed four and six weeks of early voting respectively.
In response, Republicans reduced early voting to two weeks statewide before Democratic governor-elect Tony Evers was sworn into office, a restriction which was upheld by a Republican-controlled appeals court. This change ensured that greater numbers of working-class voters of color–including single parents juggling work and childcare–would have to cast a ballot on election day, when they were likely to face significantly longer lines than voters in white-majority districts.
Despite these tactics, Joe Biden won Wisconsin, largely due to mail balloting, which Republican election officials supported in 2020.
An AP study of drop boxes in Democratic- and Republican-run election systems showed no evidence of fraud, but Wisconsin Republicans saw a competitive advantage in latching onto Donald Trump’s Big Lie. They couldn’t get legislation killing drop boxes past Democratic governor Tony Evers, so GOP lawyers brought suit before the Republican-majority state Supreme Court, who banned absentee ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin last summer. The ruling has been blocked by a circuit court judge, but will likely be overturned by the Republican-controlled appeals court.
A drop box ban is a bigger hindrance for city residents than voters in small towns. The former are far less likely to have a vehicle and often have to travel great distances to deliver ballots to a centralized polling place. Many voters in Madison and Milwaukee would have to take multiple buses just to drop off their ballots before election day.
Currently, Evers is in a dead heat with Republican candidate Tim Michels, a Trump endorsee who claims (against all evidence) that Wisconsin’s 2020 election was riddled with fraud.
Working off of this false premise, Michels is promising to restore “election integrity” if elected. Though Wisconsin Republicans set up the current bipartisan elections board, they suddenly found it wanting after Trump lost the state. Michels supports handing elections administration over to a partisan board chosen by the gerrymandered Republican congressional majority.
State control could allow Republicans to choose the membership of county election boards (even in blue districts), as they’re doing in Georgia. Handpicked GOP appointees could determine the allocation of voting machines and have the power to reduce or change polling locations, both of which would have a disproportionate impact on dense urban districts already prone to voting slowdowns.
Michels also wants to institute bi-annual voter purges, which would do undue harm to people of color, who move more often than white Wisconsinites. A Guardian study of a Republican purge list from 2019 showed that voters in majority-Black districts were twice as likely to be purged as voters in white-majority districts. A 2021 paper published by researchers from Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania found that Black voters “were more than twice as likely” to be incorrectly flagged for removal.
Cumulatively, these party-line maneuvers could tip close, consequential elections the GOP’s way through a voting system that is manifestly separate and unequal.
The national implications of the Evers-Michels race are potentially enormous: no Democratic presidential candidate has won without Wisconsin since John Kennedy in 1960.
If Tony Evers loses, we may have to say goodbye to America’s sacred principle of one person, one vote.Dan Benbow has been featured at RawStory, the Miami Herald, the New York Daily News, Salon, Truthout, and the Progressive. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @danbenbow on Twitter.