Wisconsin finds a way to restrict voter registration in the name of expanding it

On Monday, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill making Wisconsin the first state to adopt online voter registration while restricting voter registration at the same time.

That’s because Wisconsin Republicans argued that since the online system will amount to an expansion of access to voter registration, community voter registration drives are no longer necessary, so they should be banned.

It’s the same logic that would lead a city to get rid of its bus lines after building a subway.

In order to effectively ban voter registration drives, the bill eliminates “special registration deputies” — volunteers who have been trained to register voters and verify proof of residency — while maintaining proof of residency requirements for voter registrations collected manually. As Project Vote explained in a letter opposing the bill:

Register, via Shutterstock

Register, via Shutterstock

…this means organizations conducting voter registration drives must always collect a photocopy of a voter’s proof of residency and mail or deliver it with the form. Aside from the fact that most people do not walk around with compliant proof of residency on them at all times (already an enormous problem with the requirement), deploying portable photocopiers in sufficient quantities to conduct registration drives is simply not feasible. The interaction of these laws – the elimination of SRDs and the documentary proof of residency requirement – spells the effective end of voter registration drives in this presidential year

What’s more, the online system requires voters to submit a drivers license or state-issued ID number, which many citizens in Wisconsin lack. These are the same voters who would be most likely to register to vote through — you guessed it — community voter registration drives.

In short, Wisconsin has made voter registration easier for citizens who were already likely to register to vote, and made it harder for citizens who were already at risk for being excluded from the electoral process.

As Project Vote suggests, it is possible that Wisconsin’s restrictions on voter registration drives are unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court has previously held that third-party voter registration efforts constitute “core First Amendment activity” as exercises in both speech and association. So it’s possible that we will see this restriction on special registration deputies challenged. But for now, Wisconsin has made registering to vote more difficult in the name of making it easier.

Online voter registration is great, but not like this.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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