Making It Harder to Vote

In the last several years we have seen one state after another try to make it harder for people – for some people anyway – to vote. Alas, Wisconsin has not been immune to the temptation to follow suit.

The latest effort has revolved around early voting hours in Milwaukee and Dane counties. The Republicans – don’t mean to be partisan here, but only Republican legislators support the idea – have offered two lines of argument for ordering these two counties to stop allowing people to vote on evenings and weekends prior to election days.

First, they offer us their standard assertion that we need to protect the integrity of our elections by making sure there is no “in person voter fraud.” Second they tell us that voting hours must be uniform throughout the state.

Let’s start with the uniform hours argument. The only answer to that argument is a simple: why? If Milwaukee and Dane counties feel they ought to make it easier for people to vote and are willing to pay to make that happen, why should folks from outside those counties care? It’s tougher to do anything that requires getting somewhere in either Milwaukee or Dane counties than it is in most other Wisconsin counties. Maybe those two counties are just leveling the playing field.

In person voting fraud, however, is the more serious and the more important argument. There seem to be three problems with it. To begin with, there isn’t any real evidence of in person voter fraud on any serious scale. It is already against the law, but prosecutors almost never bring such cases and it seems a bit of a stretch to argue that they are all trying to protect a horde of election criminals. Second, how would getting rid of evening and weekend early voting hours deter the crime of in person voting fraud? Can’t these criminals get to the courthouse or city hall during normal business hours? Or do they just feel better committing their crime after dark or on a Saturday or Sunday?

But, most important of all, the integrity of democratic elections depends far more on the turnout in those elections than it does on letting an occasional fraudulent voter slip through the cracks. The more people make it to the polls to make their voices heard the more we can claim to truly be a nation in which government “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.”

A century and a half ago we decided that African Americans should not be barred from voting on precisely those grounds. A half-century ago we made good on that promise. In 1920 we guaranteed women the right to be part of those whose consent was required to legitimize the government and its policies.

Republican legislators will tell you that this is not denying anyone the right to vote and they are correct. Technically. There is a difference between denying someone the right to vote – saying they can’t vote even if they jump through every hoop you put up – and impeding their opportunity to vote – making it harder for them. But whenever you make it harder for people to vote you reduce the number of people who will be able to vote and that dances very close to the edge of denying them the right to vote. We really shouldn’t do that without a very compelling reason, and in person voter fraud is not that reason.

Dennis Riley has taught American Politics for 45 years, 36 of them at UW – Stevens Point, where the student newspaper recently voted him the “Best Professor in Point.”