Baldwin brings in the Minnesotan who oversees a Senate committee that’s working to pass bills protecting voting rights.
If anything about 2020 stands out to voting rights activists in Wisconsin, it was the determination of voters to cast their ballots despite the immense challenges of the last year.
Wisconsin was the only state that did not push back its 2020 primary. And the result was chaos, as municipalities scrambled to accumulate wipes and personal protective equipment and begged distilleries to make hand sanitizer, which was suddenly in short supply from traditional sources.
“I never imagined that my job would be to deploy the National Guard to help the polls,” said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell.
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director at Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, remembered that in the leadup to the April 2020 election, she was sending out updates to her mailing list “every hour on the hour.”
“I was sending out another email saying, ‘Oops, sorry, the email I sent you an hour ago is wrong because yet another court has decided something different about how you can vote and what the deadlines are, what the process is,’” Margulis said. “And people were unbelievably confused.”
Yet people turned out in record numbers for a primary. The Rev. Greg Lewis, founder of Souls to the Polls in Milwaukee, was in the hospital with COVID-19 and saw reports of the long lines in Milwaukee.
“I was on my deathbed and I was watching what was going on, and I saw all those people were in line, doing what they needed to do to cast their vote,” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? They’re standing out there at the risk of being like me. There is no way that people are going to lose. Because if you’re willing to give your life for something, there’s no way you can lose.”
McDonnell, Margulis, Lewis, and Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of Urban League of Greater Madison, shared their election stories with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin Wednesday at the Urban League of Greater Madison as the two senators discussed efforts to protect voting rights amid a national effort by Republicans to make voting harder.
Klobuchar chairs the US Senate’s rules committee, which is working to get two voting rights bills passed—the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Right Act—and is meeting with voting rights advocates across the country. Baldwin suggested Klobuchar talk with Wisconsin voting rights advocates to learn what is and isn’t improving voter turnout.
“The freedom to vote is fundamental to all of our freedoms,” Klobuchar said. “You just want people to be part of the franchise, whether they vote for you or not. If they’re able to vote, they’re part of the governing of our country.”
Wisconsin has consistently had high voter turnout compared to other states, due in part to same-day registration, in-person absentee voting, and drop boxes. Baldwin commended McDonnell for Madison’s innovations, such as using public libraries as early voting locations and Democracy in the Park events.
But while some have been innovating to improve voter turnout, Wisconsin Republicans have been chipping away at enfranchisement. In 2015 Wisconsin Republicans enacted voter ID laws, which have been found to decrease voter turnout among students, people of color, and the elderly. Anthony pointed out that voter ID laws can disenfranchise practically anyone.
“If you have even common changes in your life, voting could become more difficult,” Anthony said. “For example, as many as 30 million Americans will move and they’ll meet to get a new voter registration. An average of 2 million Americans will get married and they’ll need to change their names and they’ll need to get registered to vote again.”
Earlier this year, as they spread the “Big Lie” of voter fraud in the 2020 election, legislative Republicans introduced bills that would hinder voter access. Baldwin warned that ending same-day registration, which Wisconsin has had for decades, could be on the Wisconsin Republican agenda.A ban on that common practice just passed in Montana.
“Our democracy is under attack,” Anthony said. “And we know that democracy is a key ingredient to America’s DNA.”
Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed bills that made it to his desk, but Baldwin and Klobuchar argued that federal legislation to set a baseline for access would safeguard voting rights regardless of who’s in charge at the state level.
“What we’re trying to do here is simply put in minimum standards,” Klobuchar said.
Setting those standards, Klobuchar said, would prevent confusion like what Wisconsin experienced in April 2020. For example, states would be required to count all ballots that were postmarked on or before election day and received within seven days.
“States could do it longer if they want, but that would be the minimum standard,” Klobuchar said. “That gives you a perfect example that would have helped with some of that confusion.”
Margulis also raised the twin issues of dark money influencing politicians and gerrymandering.
“If our elected officials can pick their voters, all other bets are off,” Margulis said. “[Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice] have seen in the last ten years how difficult it is to get the ear of some of our legislators because their seats are so safe and they don’t have to listen to us.”
Anthony is a member of the People’s Maps Commission, which Evers founded in order to pre-empt a repeat of the 2011 gerrymandered maps and provide a counterexample of a transparently, fairly drawn map.
“We’re doing it in the light of day,” Anthony said. “We’re not in some smoke-filled room with the doors closed trying to gerrymander the map so that Democrats or Republicans can win.”
The For the People Act includes campaign finance disclosure requirements and provisions to end gerrymandering. It was passed in the House in March and is waiting to be taken up by the US Senate.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed the House on Tuesday, the day before the roundtable. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said the US Senate will prioritize voting rights when it returns from its August recess.