(Image by Shutterstock)
(Image by Shutterstock)

Wisconsin teeming with groups registering voters even before threat of purge

Every time Karen Voss meets someone who has not yet registered to vote, she sees an opportunity. 

An opportunity to educate. An opportunity to convey a sense of civic duty. An opportunity to engage in local government and community events. An opportunity to create a lifelong voter. 

“It’s about empowering citizens about the importance of voting,” said Voss, one of the leading forces behind Chippewa Valley Votes, when asked to explain what motivates her to volunteer her time registering voters and training others to do the same. “That’s all we are about.”

Voss and more than 50 other volunteers with Eau Claire-based, nonpartisan Chippewa Valley Votes are busier than ever this year registering voters. The organization is present at schools, libraries, and anywhere else potential voters gather, discussing the importance of voting and working to register people to vote. They also are conducting training sessions, teaching others how to register voters in an effort to reach as many people as possible.

On Thursday, Chippewa Valley Votes volunteers spent time at Eau Claire North and Memorial high schools, where they registered 204 students who are 18 years old and instructed another 471 younger than that how to register when they turn that age. During the next two weeks they will register more students at Altoona, Augusta, Chippewa Falls and Fall Creek high schools, and they hope to expand their youth voter registration reach in the future, group member Carol Craig said.

“It is good to know our area school districts, communities and citizens are collaborating in this initiative because of the importance of getting our young adults prepared for engagement in the democratic process,” she said.

Chippewa Valley Votes — which partners with numerous other regional voter registration efforts in west-central Wisconsin — is hardly alone among organizations seeking to register people this year. Groups ranging from the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, to NextGen, to Citizen Action Wisconsin and others said they are working hard already this year to enable people to vote. 

Those efforts are prompted in part, leaders of those organizations and others said, by the fact political pundits predict Wisconsin will play a pivotal role in determining the next president of the United States in November. Voter registration has garnered national media headlines in recent months because of the state’s status as a swing state that could determine the outcome of November’s presidential race. 

President Donald Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, and voter turnout is viewed as key to the outcome of this year’s election in Wisconsin. Leaders of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties said both political parties view attracting new voters as pivotal to their candidates carrying the state this year. 

Eileen Newcomer, voter education manager with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said that group’s endeavors have been even stronger than usual this year, in part because of the extra attention the state is receiving this election cycle. Members of the organization’s 20 local subgroups “are always active, but they are especially active this year,” Newcomer said, noting voter registration volunteer numbers typically seen for a fall election already have been reached this year.

“A lot of people are thinking about what a big year this is for Wisconsin,” Newcomer said, “and they want to get involved.”

Chippewa Valley Votes reports additional volunteers this year too, Voss said. “We are seeing new faces this year, people we haven’t seen before,” she said.    

The League and other organizations registering voters said they are working to expand existing partnerships and create new ones to boost their reach. This year, Turn Up the Vote, a voter registration and education program in Racine operated by the Racine Interfaith Coalition, is increasing its reach. In addition to door-knocking, representatives will also sit outside about a dozen city locations, such as neighborhood grocery stores and laundromats, to connect with potential voters.

Program representatives go into minority-heavy Racine neighborhoods to educate residents on how and when to vote. The effort includes reaching out to Latinos, but because some households may include undocumented immigrants, it can take more work to earn the trust of those family members who are citizens and are eligible to vote. 

“There’s a lot of fear in the immigrant community, but as we proceeded time after time, the doors opened a little easier,” said Linda Boyle, Racine Interfaith Coalition’s co-director.

Other voter registration organizations also are seeking to register minority voters. In Milwaukee, Voces de la Frontera and other groups are registering voters and educating about voting rights. Voces de la Frontera’s efforts focus on attracting new Latino voters, and in 2016 the organization created a network of 5,600 Latino voters, the majority of whom were new voters.  

Since last summer, EXPO of Wisconsin, an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated people, has worked in Milwaukee to inform citizens no longer on parole that they are eligible to vote. The group refers people to voter registration organizations and will soon expand its efforts to Madison and Eau Claire, thanks to recent grant funding.

In Wisconsin, people are ineligible to vote while incarcerated on or probation. Once off probation, many don’t realize they can cast ballots, said Sarah Ferber, associate state director of EXPO.

“We want to make sure they know they can vote again,” Ferber said, “and make sure we link them with places to get them registered to vote.”

Ferber knows what it’s like to not be able to vote. She lost that right 16 years ago because of crimes she committed. She regained the ability to vote a year ago and is working to help others do the same. 

“Voting is such an important right, and we need to help as many people as possible be able to do that,” she said.

Attempts to increase voter registration come amid an effort to remove as many as 234,000 people from the state’s voting list. A voter purge lawsuit filed last fall argued the state Elections Commission broke the law when it failed to remove voters who did not respond within 30 days to a mailing in October indicating they may have moved. The six-member commission wanted to wait until after the Nov. 3 presidential election before removing anyone from voting lists because of inaccuracies previously discovered during a past attempt to identify voters who may have moved.

On Jan. 14 a state appeals court issued an order to halt the removal of voters while the case moves through the courts. Attorneys for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty subsequently requested the state Supreme Court reverse the appellate court’s order, but that court has not yet taken up the case. 

In response to the proposed voter purge, the Milwaukee County Board earlier this month voted to double the amount it will spend, from $50,000 to $100,000, on voter registration and education efforts this year.

Leaders of numerous Wisconsin organizations seeking to register voters said they purposely don’t focus on partisan politics. Instead, they said, their mission is simply registering as many eligible people as possible to vote. 

“We don’t want to tell people how to vote. We just want them engaged and to get them out to vote,” Newcomer said. “Voting is a staple of our democracy.”

Additional reporting by Jonathon Sadowski