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Voter Gladys Harris

In this April 24, photo, Gladys Harris of Milwaukee holds some of the forms of identification she brought with her to the polls in the 2016 presidential election. She was unable to vote because she had lost her driver's license a few days before and thought one of the many other cards she had with her would work. 

An Associated Press story this week told of several eligible Wisconsin voters who were denied their right to vote in the presidential election because of a Republican law that requires them to show one of several specific kinds of photo ID.

Fail to provide one of those IDs, and election administrators deny you the right to vote — even if the person standing before them is listed in the voter rolls, is not dead and has other pieces of identification with her name and/or photo on them.

Clearly, what’s needed in this country is a presumption of voter eligibility.

There’s an obvious corollary for this in the criminal justice system, where it’s not up to defendants to prove they are not guilty of the crimes with which they are charged; it’s up to prosecutors to prove they are.

Similarly, if a person has registered to vote by providing documents that prove age and residency, that person would be presumed to be eligible to vote at the polling place — no matter what photo ID she has or doesn’t have.

Then those people out there who somehow believe minuscule levels of voter fraud (as opposed to, say, modest levels of voter turnout) are threatening democracy would have to actually get off their butts and go to the polling places to challenge specific voters’ eligibility. No more simply voting for Republicans who pass overly broad, clearly political, guilty-before-proven-innocent voter ID laws.

I’d even give the challengers three days to come back after Election Day with proof of challenged voters’ ineligibility — just like under current Wisconsin law voters without the proper photo ID can cast provisional ballots and come back within three days to prove that, no, they aren’t paid Democratic operatives bused in to illegally tilt the election for Barack Obama (or whatever the right-wing conspiracy theory happens to be at the time).

Forty-six states already have laws allowing private citizens to challenge voters’ eligibility on or before Election Day, and 24 states allow challenges at the polls without providing any documentation, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report. By contrast, 34 states have voter ID laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Such statutory infrastructure already favors putting the onus on challengers to prove ineligibility, not on voters to prove eligibility.

America has a history of denying certain groups the right to vote. At the same time “responsibility for establishing a voter’s eligibility,” according to UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, “has varied over time and continues to vary from one place to another and from one stage of the voting process to another.”

For example, UW-Madison political science professor Ken Mayer pointed to Oregon, which “now registers people automatically when they get a driver’s license, and unless they opt out will automatically be sent a ballot (they conduct all-mail elections). But even here, you have to take the affirmative step to get a license or ID, which most people will do.”

There’s reason to hope, in other words, that the pendulum in Wisconsin can swing back toward greater democracy.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter

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