Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As Wisconsin casts its primary ballots Tuesday, voting tech, voter protections, and fair access to polls are all at issue.
Wisconsin voters are casting ballots Tuesday in perhaps the most consequential state presidential primary in the nation. Historically, candidates who’ve won Wisconsin have gone on to become their party’s nominated leader in every election since 1968, save for 1984. Arizona’s primary will likely be heavy on Wisconsin voters’ minds: The confusion and frustration faced by voters there on March 22 was bad enough that the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating election failures in the state.
Wisconsin mirrors Arizona in a lot of ways, namely that both states have been heavily mired in voting rights litigation—Arizona for its proof-of-citizenship voter registration law, and Wisconsin for its voter ID law. As many as 350,000 people lack the photo ID needed to vote in Wisconsin as the state holds its first major election where such identification will required. Meanwhile, a ProPublica investigation has found that the state has failed to fund education and outreach efforts around its voter ID law.
Given that black and Latino residents are more likely to not have photo ID than white residents, Wisconsin’s law has been deemed discriminatory in past legal battles. A federal appeals court upheld the ID law last year, which is why it’s in effect for Tuesday’s elections. ACLU attorneys will be in court on April 7 hoping to persuade a federal judge to allow people who don’t have ID to sign an affidavit swearing to their identity so that they can vote in future elections.
Lawsuits that seek to support voter rights have been dwindling since the U.S. Supreme Court mangled the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by ruling void a key provision that monitored states with long histories of racial discrimination. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) released data this week on what looks like a shrinking number of such suits:
The problem here is that these lawsuits are becoming more rare at precisely the moment when more are needed. The preclearance provision that SCOTUS extinguished in 2013 was created as a preventive mechanism to catch potential voting rights violations before they happened, to minimize lawsuits. Without that provision in place, the burden is on the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights organizations to catch violations after they happen, then sue to correct them. There has been no shortage of voting rights problems in recent years, and there are not enough legal resources available to catch them all.
|Voting Civil Rights Lawsuits|
|Number Latest Month||15|
|Number Previous Month||7|
|Number 1 Year Ago||3|
|Percent Change From 5 years Ago||-40.4|
Data via TRAC
Democratic voter turnout has been somewhat anemic this year, particularly in the South, with the strongest concentration of black and Latino voters. The graphic below from Facing South—the media arm of the Institute for Southern Studies, based in North Carolina, where voting problems have been uniquely difficult—shows this year’s turnout numbers compared to 2008’s:
It’s been Southern states that have been doing the most to make voting difficult for people of color, college students, and elderly voters. The same difficulties are being encountered by college students in Wisconsin in Tuesday’s primary. Further beleaguering voters is the fact that much of the nation’s voting infrastructure is obsolete, at risk of malfunctioning, and prehistorically designed compared to the devices and services people today are accustomed to using.
The infographic below, created by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and the Brennan Center for Justice, shows the “time tax” placed on certain voters due to poor elections administration.
This is from a larger Brennan Center infographic that not only points to problematic voting policies in recent years, but also to a few glimmers of hope that things may be improving. The report notes that 23 states have passed laws to modernize voting practices since 2012, and that 30 states now allow people to register to vote online.
Can those glimmers slice through the fog of malaise that seems to characterize voting in 2016? In a comprehensive survey from the Pew Research Center on perceptions of this year’s primaries, 46 percent of registered voters said their lives were worse off today compared to 50 years ago. There doesn’t seem to be much optimism about the future, either: Asked about the coming generation, 54 percent of white voters and 41 percent of black voters said life will be even worse for the post-Millennials.
Taken together, the visuals above all illustrate the sad, sorry, uninspiring, and stifling state of voting in 2016. Tuesday’s experiment with Wisconsin’s new voter ID law will likely add to the long list of voter blues. If you’re still curious about why it’s so hard to vote lately, check out this conversation between The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk and Caty Green below: