The Fight Against Voter Suppression

April 5, 2019

By Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

(This is the text of the talk that Matt gave on April 4, 2019, to Women4Women of Wausau.)

Thanks, everyone, for coming this evening. I’d like to thank Rita and Women4Women for inviting me tonight, and I’d like to thank Rita and Milt for treating me and my wife, Jean, to dinner at the Great Dane, which I didn’t dare finish, lest I fall asleep up here, which wouldn’t be good!

Let me start with the simple fact that the franchise in the United States has been suppressed since 1776.

At our founding, only white male property owners could vote.

One of our Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris of New York, who wrote the lofty words of the Preamble to our Constitution, elsewhere wasn’t so lofty. He railed against what he called “the mob,” and referred to working people as “reptiles.” People who don’t own property “don’t deserve” to vote, Morris said.

The expansion of the suffrage to white working men occurred state by state. Ben Franklin led the way in Pennsylvania.

Here was the classic case that clever Old Ben made, by way of this example:

“Today a man owns a jackass worth $50 and he is entitled to vote, but before the next election, the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive…But the jackass is dead. Now, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man, or in the jackass?”

Gradually, more and more states agreed that the right to vote resided in the man, not the jackass.

The white man, anyway.

The battle to gain the vote for African American men was not an easy one.

Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionists championed it.

But racist Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina warned that it would allow former slaves to gain “political and social equality with their former owners.” Heaven forbid!

Yet the Civil War itself, where one in ten Union soldiers were black, made a compelling argument for granting blacks the right to vote. This was not lost on General William Tecumseh Sherman, who said:

“When the fight is over, the hand that drops the musket cannot be denied the ballot.”

The Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870. It states:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

As members or supporters of Women4Women, you might be especially interested in the battle for women’s suffrage.

During the Fight for Independence, Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John:

“Remember the ladies…If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have not voice, or representation.”

As many of you know, the fomenting of this rebellion began in earnest at Seneca Falls in 1848. For the next 72 years, activists for women’s suffrage demanded the vote.

Jane Addams, writing in 1912, put it pithily when she gave a speech entitled “If Things Were Reversed,” which was excerpted in La Follette’s Weekly. She and Belle Case La Follette were very good friends, by the way. Jane Addams flipped the script. She asked how men would react if they were denied the right to vote and had to listen to the same belittling rationales for this denial that women were hearing over and over again. She parrotted those rationales, one after another:

“First, men would find politics corrupting” if they voted.

“Second, they would vote as their wives and mothers did.”

“Third, men’s suffrage would only double the vote without changing the results.”

“Fourth, men’s suffrage would diminish the respect for men.”

“Fifth, most men don’t want to vote.”

“Sixth, the best men won’t vote.”

We Wisconsinites can be proud because we were the first state to ratify the 19th amendment. That was back in June 1919, 100 years ago. Fourteen months later, it became part of the U.S. Constitution.

It states: “ The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

But even as the suffrage was expanding, a powerful and ugly backlash was under way.

In the Jim Crow South, as you probably know, whites used steep poll taxes and ridiculously obscure literacy tests to deny black citizens the right to vote.

And they used intimidation and violence, including lynchings, to deter black people from voting.

And then they rewrote their state constitutions to criminalize a whole variety of actions, and then stripped convicts of the right to vote. This was all very intentional.

Take Alabama:

The president of the state’s 1901 constitutional convention, John Knox, said the goal of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State…We must establish it by law--not by force or fraud.”

Here’s how they did it:

The 1901 Constitution specified all the different acts that could cost you the vote.

"The following persons shall be disqualified both from registering, and from voting, namely:

“All idiots and insane persons; those who shall by reason of conviction of crime be disqualified from voting at the time of the ratification of this Constitution; those who shall be convicted of treason, murder, arson, embezzlement, malfeasance in office, larceny, receiving stolen property, obtaining property or money under false pretenses, perjury, subornation of perjury, robbery, assault with intent to rob, burglary, forgery, bribery, assault and battery on the wife, bigamy, living in adultery, sodomy, incest, rape, miscegenation, crime against nature, or any crime punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary, or of any infamous crime or crime involving moral turpitude.”

And “moral turpitude” was never defined, by the way.

Or take Virginia.State Representative Carter Glass introduced a bill that he said would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor…in less than five years.” He said his goal was “to discriminate to the very extremity…with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of.”

The Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with the poll tax and literacy test and some of the other obstacles to voting. After the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, white supremacists and reactionaries weren’t happy. And, like their predecessors in Jim Crow, they were blunt about it.

Paul Weyrich, one of the leaders of the social conservative movement, told a gathering of the religious right in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote…Our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting population goes down.” You can see for yourself: Just Google “Paul Weyrich” and “leverage” and “elections” and YouTube and 41-second video will pop up. I watched it again this morning.

So they would use negative advertising and other techniques to dampen voter enthusiasm, and they would close voting booths so there would be long lines in predominantly African American areas, or they would purge voting rolls.

But they really didn’t get a big boost until the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Shelby County case of 2013, did away with part of the Voting Rights Act that had compelled many Southern states to get approval from the Justice Department before they could make any changes to their voting laws.

This led to an avalanche of new voter suppression laws and tactics, which we saw materialize in grotesque form in Georgia and in North Carolina last year. Voter suppression laws were introduced not only across the Deep South but all across the country, with 25 states passing bills that made it harder to vote.

Many of those bills were so-called Voter ID bills, ostensibly designed to combat voter fraud, except that voter fraud is a phenomenally rare occurrence. Really what they were designed to do was to suppress the vote, especially of voters who tend to vote Democratic.

Scott Walker and the GOP-Legislature passed their so-called Voter ID law in 2011, as you’ll remember.

When it passed, Republican State Senators were described by the chief of staff of one Republican Senator as being “giddy” that they were making it harder for minorities and young people to vote.

The Voter ID law requires people to show a government-issued ID with your photo on it when you go to the voting booth. It also limited early voting, which a federal judge in Madison struck down as being blatantly discriminatory.

And then in the recent and controversial lame-duck session, Vos and Fitzgerald tried again to limit early voting, and the same judge, Judge Peterson, struck it down for the same reason.

The problem with Voter ID is that many young people, people of color, and elderly people don’t have drivers’ licenses, the most common form of permissible IDs.

Going to the DMV to get an ID is not as easy as it seems if you’re in a nursing home or disabled or don’t have a vehicle. And finding a DMV that’s open can be tricky. For instance, if you lived in Sauk City last year, the DMV was open only on the fifth Wednesday of every month, and there were only four months that had a fifth Wednesday!

The voter ID law has had its desired effect: Both Representative Glenn Grothman and the unlamented Brad Schimel, the former Attorney General of Wisconsin, said in public that this law helped or was going to help Republicans win elections in Wisconsin. In fact, it may have been a big reason that Trump carried Wisconsin, because thousands of voters may have been turned away at the polls or discouraged from voting by the Voter ID law.

Let’s be clear: Voter suppression is un-democratic small d, and un-American, capital A. Every citizen has the right to vote. That right shouldn’t be impeded. Voting should be made easier, not harder.

You know, the art of politics should consist of two things: getting your people out, and convincing a fraction of those who don’t already agree with you that your view of what is good and right and moral and American is the best way to go.

It shouldn’t be about forcing voters who disagree with you to clear hurdle after hurdle and run an obstacle course on the way to the voting booth.

But that’s how it’s been over the last few years here in America, and these sleazy tactics echo a shameful and a racist past.

Now I want to suggest three ways we can make voting easier in Wisconsin.

1. Make Getting a Voter ID easier at the DMV

Of course, we could also try to get a bill passed that would rollback the Voter ID law, but that’s not going to be possible with the legislature in GOP hands. But Gov. Evers does have executive authority over the DOT and the DMVs in this state. And fortunately, he issued an executive order, exactly a month ago, for the DMV facilities to expand their accessibility, increase their hours of availability to include weekends and evenings, and to explore relocating centers closer to public transportation.

2. Enact Automatic Voter Registration

Gov. Evers has also introduced a bill to bring about Automatic Voter Registration, which 15 states already have. Once you get your driver’s license, you’re automatically on the voting rolls if you’re a U.S. citizen. The bill would also assess whether it’s feasible to extend automatic voter registration to any citizen who gives their information to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, the Department of Health Services, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Workforce Development, the DNR, or the Department of Safety and Professional Services. The bill also calls for a study of the feasibility of having the UW system and the state’s technical colleges do this, as well.

3. Felon re-enfranchisement

Florida, as you may know, just voted in November to restore the voting rights of 1.4 million Floridians: felons who had already served their sentences and completed probation and parole. (There was an exception for murderers and rapists.) This was huge news, since Florida was one of four states – Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia are the others –where once you are convicted of a felony you can never vote again. Fortunately, the former governor of Virginia restored the rights of thousands of folks in Virginia by pardoning them after they had served their time.

But did you know that in two states, people who are still actually behind bars already have the right to vote?

Any guesses on those two states? Vermont is the easier one. Maine is the other.

Here in Wisconsin, we could try to do that. But a more realistic first step would be to restore voting rights to anyone who is no longer behind bars.

Felon disenfranchisement is a problem here in Wisconsin. You can’t vote in Wisconsin even when you get released; you have to be totally “off paper” before you can vote—off of probation and supervision. And probation officers often send folks back to prison for the most minor violations of their probation—not crimes, at all.

The restriction that they have to be “off paper” to vote is a punishing one, and many states don’t have it. It isn’t logically connected to depriving them of this fundamental citizenship right. That restriction needs to be lifted.

This is not all we need to do to get our democracy on the right track. I’m just going to mention two other things real quick before I close.

First, we need to ban gerrymandering. Congratulations, by the way to the citizens of the Town of Newbold, near Rhinelander, for a passing a referendum on Tuesday urging the state legislature to pass a law enacting nonpartisan redistricting. The referendum passed with 69 percent approval. The citizens of Vernon County and La Crosse Countydid the same on Tuesday, with the Vernon County referendum passing with 71 percent approval, and the La Crosse County passing with 77 percent approval.

This is a popular issue, no matter how you identify politically; it’s popular with Democrats, it’s popular with Republicans, it’s popular with liberals, and it’s popular with conservatives. No one wants the political party that happens to be in power in the even-decade year to be able rig a map to stay in power for another 10 years! More evidence of the popularity of this issue is that 42 county boards have already passed resolutions urging the state legislature to come around on this, but Marathon County isn’t one of them. I hope you pressure your board members to get this done.

I’d like to see not 42 county boards but 62 county boards out of the 72 in favor of banning gerrymandering. But rallying at the grassroots, we can get this reform passed. We don’t have to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court. All we need to do is pressure our legislators at town halls, at office hours, and while they’re on the campaign trail, and tell them that if don’t support banning gerrymandering, they’re not getting our votes! That’s a language politicians understand.

And the second reform is to tackle the problem of money in politics here in Wisconsin. I know Wausau was one of the first communities in Wisconsin to vote to overturn Citizens United and to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. Now 142 communities in Wisconsin have signed on to this. And overturning Citizens United is just shorthand for overturning 130 years of bad U.S. Supreme Court decisions on corporate personhood. It started in 1886, in a case called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, where an employee of the Court, not one of the justices, wrote in a headnote to that decision that corporations were persons. And ever since then, subsequent Supreme Courts citied this case as precedent. That’s how the ball started rolling down the hill. It rolled faster in 1976 in the Buckley v. Valeo decision, which said that money equals speech. These two false equations, corporations are persons and money is speech, led to Citizens United, which said corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect this candidate and trash that candidate. Overturning Citizens United is a popular issue, too, across ideologies, because people know in their gut that they don’t have as much political power as the wealthy and the corporations.

That’s the national problem. And here in Wisconsin, the problem of big money and dark money and corporate money has also grown.

In 2015, the legislature disastrously rewrote our campaign finance law. For the first time in more than 100 years, it allowed corporations to donate to political parties. It doubled the amount of money that people can donate to the candidate of their choice. Now rich and poor alike in Wisconsin can write $20,000 checks to their favorite candidate for governor. It also tore down the ceiling on individual donations to political parties, which used to be $10,000. Now the sky is the limit. Yes, rich and poor alike in Wisconsin can now write million dollar checks to the Republican or Democratic Parties. And the rich are doing it! Diane Hendricks, the richest woman in Wisconsin, wrote a million dollar check to the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Marlene Ricketts, the co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, gave the Republican Party of Wisconsin a million dollar check. So, you might say, well, both sides can do it so it’s OK. But our democracy is not supposed to be a tug of war between a handful of billionaires on the right and a handful of billionaires on the left. In a democracy, we’re all supposed to have an equal tug on the rope.

And that’s the rub. Because of voter suppression, because of gerrymandering, because of money in politics, we don’t have an equal tug on the rope.

Even Donald Trump knows that. You remember that first Republican debate he was in. All the candidates were up there, including Scott Walker, who didn’t cast a shadow even under all those lights. And Trump said, you know what, I’ve give a lot of these politicians money, and when I call them up, they do what I want. He said the system is rigged. And that resonated. One reason it resonated is that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie had been saying the same thing for a long time. You can Google Elizabeth Warren’s name and the adjective “rigged” and you can get a 5-minute YouTube video where she uses the word about 20 times. Trump knows a good line when he steals it.

Everyone knows the system is rigged by the rich and the powerful. Everyone knows that when you go to knock on the door of your Senator in Washington, you don’t get schmoozed by the Senator for an hour like the big donors do. And the Senator doesn’t deliver for you, either.

But the good news is that the people of Wisconsin, and the people of the United States, are sick and tired of the rigging of our political system.

We want a level playing field. It shouldn’t be too much to ask!

So please support the efforts to unrig the system by making voting easier, not harder; by banning gerrymandering; by amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United; and by reforming our campaign finance system here in Wisconsin.

As Fighting Bob La Follette said, 100 years ago, “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

We need more democracy in the United States!

We need more democracy in Wisconsin!

We need more democracy in a hurry!

Thank you.


The Fight to Vote by Michael Waldman

One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

And the Brennan Center,