WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL: Wisconsin's ban on vouching for unregistered voters will disenfranchise eligible voters

October 22, 2012
Steven Verburg
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Wisconsin residents may know that the photo ID provision of the 2011 election reform law has been struck down, but flying under the radar are other parts of the law that remain in force.

Thousands of new voters and others who vote only in presidential elections may be surprised to find out that the pre-Election Day voting period has been shortened, that they are required to sign a poll book and they must live in a ward 28 days to vote there.

But the lesser-known change that could have the greatest effect voters is a ban on "corroboration" — the practice of allowing new or recently relocated voters to establish residency in a ward and register to vote by having someone vouch for them if they lack an acceptable document that shows their address.

"Everyone focuses on voter ID, but I don't think they realize that loss of corroboration is the bigger issue," said Diane Hermann-Brown, past president and current communications chairwoman for the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association. "It's going to hit all ages, not just young people. That is a huge issue."

In 2008, about 500 Sun Prairie residents used corroboration to register, said Hermann-Brown, clerk for the city in Dane County.

Curbing voter fraud?

Sen. Mary Lazich, the law's chief sponsor, said the corroboration ban would stop only those attempting voter fraud. There is a long list of documents that a legitimate voter can provide to prove residency, even as late as three days after Election Day, and be able to vote, said Lazich, a Republican from New Berlin.

Lazich said election clerks told her several years before the law passed that they worried that "chain corroboration" — large groups of people vouching for each other — was "out of hand." Lazich said she didn't remember which clerks complained, where the practice occurred or if any voter fraud cases arose from it.

Some students and homeless people have used corroboration, but Hermann-Brown said new brides and elderly women who move in with adult their children are most likely to be hurt by the ban when they don't have utility bills or other common proofs of residence in their names.

Because of tough economic conditions, many people need to re-register to vote after moving out of houses and into apartments or into homes of family members, Hermann-Brown said.

Hindering voters

The corroboration ban tripped up would-be voters — including young people whose parents were there to vouch for them — in the June 5 gubernatorial recall election, according to the League of Women Voters in Wisconsin.

A River Falls man who had moved in with his girlfriend but didn't change his address or have any utilities in his name was unable to register to vote even though the chief election inspector at the polling place knew him well, said Carolyn Castore of Milwaukee, who coordinated 150 observers across the state.

"It chagrined the chief inspector because that man lived next door to her and had shoveled her sidewalk last winter," according to a league report on problems at the polls.

River Falls City Clerk Lu Ann Hecht said she hadn't heard about the incident, but it didn't surprise her.

"Election workers are diligent and follow the rules, but voters don't know the rules," Hecht said. "If the Legislature could spend a whole day at the polls, they could get a feeling for what's really happening."

Better to re-register early

Even though it's still legal to register at the polls on Election Day, the changes in the law make it risky, Hermann-Brown said.

To ensure that their vote will count, those who must register — new voters and people who have moved, changed their names after a marriage or divorce or may have been dropped from poll lists because they haven't voted in four years — should act now to procure state-approved proof-of-address, she said.

It can take time to obtain certain documents, like monthly utility bills. One way to establish residency more quickly is to set up an account for online banking that lists the new address, Hermann-Brown said.

The state Government Accountability Board ruled in August that electronic records showing a person's address are acceptable, so voters can bring in their laptop or smartphone to verify where they live.

Lazich said she was disappointed by the smartphone ruling. She said modern electronic devices will confuse poll workers, especially elderly ones in rural areas.

"That's going to be nightmare for them," Lazich said. "If they are looking at a smartphone and want to be sure that it's a statement from their bank, or if it's some other website, how do they know? Do I pick it up and hold it in my hand so that I can see it? What if I drop it and break it? I think it's a huge problem."

Changes in voting and registration rules

Presidential elections typically bring out more voters than other contests. Those who haven't voted recently, may notice changes for the Nov. 6 election, especially if they need to register to vote with a new name or address.

Voter registration corroboration banned

If you don't have an acceptable document that shows your name and address, you can no longer establish residency in a ward by having a registered voter vouch for you.

  • What to do: Don't wait until the last minute to dig up a document or set up a new bank account at your new address or under your new name after a marriage or divorce. You can provide a current, valid Wisconsin driver's license or other official documents including utility bills and bank statements. For a full list: gab.wi.gov/node/2550
  • No hard copy required: Establish your residence by showing a clerk or poll worker an acceptable document displayed on a computer or smartphone screen. An internet connection won't be provided.
  • No home: Homeless people must obtain a letter from a social service agency specifying a shelter or other location, such as a park bench, as their residence.

New voting rules

  • Where you vote: You are expected to vote in the ward where you lived on Oct. 9 — that is, 28 days before the election instead of 10 days under the old law.
  • Sign on the line: You must sign a poll book when voting at the polls, unless you are handicapped.
  • Ward boundary changes: Your voting district and polling place may have changed. (Go to myvote.wi.gov to check.)
  • Straight ticket option gone: No straight party ticket voting. Choose a candidate race by race.
  • Voter ID in limbo: You don't need to show ID to vote, even though the 2011 law required it. A court overturned the requirement after one election. More appeals are pending.

Changes for early and absentee balloting

  • Less time for early voting: You may no longer vote your absentee ballot in-person in your local clerk's office the day before the election.
  • Extended absentee voting: Your mailed-in absentee ballot can be postmarked as late as Election Day and arrive at the clerk's office as late as the Friday after the election.
  • Don't vote twice: If you vote absentee, it is against the law to vote again at the polls. In the past, this was legal, with the absentee vote being canceled.