How a Wave of New Voters Could Take Out Scott Walker in 2018

Thanks to increased voter registration efforts, Democrats may be able to oust Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker this fall.

Michael Leon

Molly McGrath (L), a voting rights attorney with the ACLU, works with Madison residents to get the IDs they need to vote under Wisconsin’s strict voter-ID law. (Courtesy of Molly McGrath)

MADI­SON, WIS. — Vot­ers stream into the Mead­owridge Library, a typ­i­cal polling place on the south­west side. It’s elec­tion day, April 3, icy and mis­er­able. Sev­en years ago, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er ® launched a wide-rang­ing project imped­ing turnout, insti­tut­ing vot­er ID require­ments and clos­ing ear­lyvot­ing sites, all of which helped his own party. 

But Walker’s suc­cess is begin­ning to thaw. City­wide turnout reached 45 per­cent this spring, high for an April election. 

That’s thanks in part to a non­par­ti­san coun­terof­fen­sive led by elec­tion clerks in metro vot­ing districts. 

In an email to In These Times, Madi­son city clerk Mari­beth Witzel-Behl said, Our goal is for each eli­gi­ble vot­er to be able to cast a bal­lot and have that bal­lot count­ed.” The effect will like­ly be a spike in turnout for the August pri­maries and Novem­ber gen­er­al elections. 

Madison’s pio­neer­ing vot­er out­reach effort began in 2012, after state Repub­li­cans passed the first of dozens of vot­er sup­pres­sion laws. Des­ig­nat­ed ambas­sadors” from the City Clerk’s office train vot­ing rights work­ers for groups such as the Dane Coun­ty Vot­er ID Coali­tion who reach out to seniors, stu­dents and civ­il rights groups. 

We go to where we think vot­ing rights may be at risk — food pantries, col­lege cam­pus­es, home­less shel­ters — to reg­is­ter vot­ers and help them get an ID, includ­ing tak­ing them to the DMV,” says Mar­i­an Matthews of the League of Women Vot­ers of Dane Coun­ty. I feel strong­ly about social jus­tice and I think vot­ing rights are crit­i­cal to achiev­ing it.” 

Madi­son has seen high turnouts since 2016, when the One Wis­con­sin Insti­tute v. Thom­sen fed­er­al court deci­sion swept away much of the Repub­li­can vot­er-obstruc­tion leg­is­la­tion, includ­ing the man­date that cities have only one ear­ly vot­ing site. The rul­ing applied statewide, but Madi­son has done the most to expand vot­er out­reach, increas­ing ear­ly-vot­ing sites to a state-record 15 stations. 

It appears that all of this proac­tiv­i­ty paid off,” notes Bar­ry Bur­den, polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. In Novem­ber 2016, Madi­son saw high vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion while over­all state turnout declined. This April, Madison’s turnout rough­ly dou­bled that of the state at large, help­ing to pro­pel pro­gres­sive Rebec­ca Dal­let to a land­slide vic­to­ry in the Wis­con­sin Supreme Court race. 

Oth­er Wis­con­sin munic­i­pal­i­ties con­tact­ed the Madi­son Clerk’s Office to use the city as a mod­el. Kenosha,the state’s fourth-most pop­u­lous city, adopt­ed a sim­i­lar vot­er ambas­sador project in 2017 and record­ed a 26 per­cent turnout in April, almost dou­bling the April 2017 turnout. 

Mil­wau­kee is open­ing 20 vot­er reg­is­tra­tion kiosks at pub­lic libraries across the city, and will increase its ear­ly-vot­ing sites from three to eight for the gen­er­al election. 

Uni­ver­si­ties have also joined in. At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, the Andrew Good­man Foun­da­tion — named for an activist mur­dered in 1964 while help­ing black Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans reg­is­ter to vote — has fund­ed three Vote Every­where Ambas­sadors” since 2016. Sev­er­al cam­pus wards saw record turnout in April. 

Pri­vate groups have chipped in, too, such as a local taxi coop­er­a­tive, Union Cab, which drove peo­ple to the polls for free. 

In Novem­ber, Madi­son, which votes more than 80 per­cent Demo­c­ra­t­ic, could poten­tial­ly increase the anti-Walk­er vote by tens of thou­sands over the 2014 elec­tion. Near-pres­i­den­tial-lev­el turnout could sig­nal the end of the Repub­li­cans’ vot­er obstruc­tion project.

Michael Leon has writ­ten for The Pro­gres­sive, In These Times, Coun­ter­Punch and others.
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