Wisconsin would join the majority of states that allow voters to register online under a bill that passed the state Senate on Tuesday.
But critics object to a portion of the bill they say — instead of making it more convenient for voters to register — would bar civic groups from helping them do so through voter registration drives.
Democratic senators offered 10 amendments to the bill during Tuesday’s floor debate, each of which were rejected by majority Republicans. They painted the bill as part of a broader attempt by Republicans to make it tougher to vote.
Republicans portrayed the bill, which passed on a 19-13 vote, as an obvious step to modernize state elections.
The bill appears to be on a fast track toward Gov. Scott Walker’s desk in the final weeks of the 2016 legislative session. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said last week he expects a “substantially similar” bill to advance in that chamber.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, would give voters the option to register to vote or update their registration information online, instead of with paper documents.
Most states already took that leap, and it appears to have few opponents in Wisconsin. As of Feb. 2, 30 states and the District of Columbia offered online registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Most of Tuesday’s debate instead centered on a provision in the bill that would eliminate so-called Special Registration Deputies, or SRDs, from state law.
Currently, municipal election clerks deputize SRDs to conduct voter registration drives for civic groups such as League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. The special deputies bring registration forms to voter drives, help voters complete them and return the forms to local clerks.
LWV director Andrea Kaminski said the league conducts periodic registration drives at special events, libraries, colleges and senior centers throughout the state. She said the bulk of voters registered in the drives are from Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s Democratic strongholds.
During Tuesday’s debate, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, linked the bill to other recent Republican changes to state election law, such as voter ID, that he predicts will hamper access to the ballot — especially for demographic groups that typically vote for Democrats.
Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said the intent of the bill isn’t as advertised.
“Isn’t the object of the game to get everybody to vote?” Bewley said. “I really believe that the intent of this bill is to narrow opportunities.”
LeMahieu called the claim that his bill would end registration drives “a complete fallacy.”
With online registration, LeMahieu said special registration deputies — and their role as a steward of registration paperwork — no longer will be needed. Instead, he said, anyone could help a voter register online using tablets or other mobile devices.
“We’re making sure everybody can do registration drives,” LeMahieu said. “All I need is my smartphone or my iPad.”
But other groups that oppose the LeMahieu bill — such as Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan government accountability group — note that it requires voters to have an ID that meets the state voter ID requirement when they register online. Such voters would provide their ID number when they register.
“Those individuals less likely to have those forms of ID (minorities, the elderly, low-income persons, and students) — the very people most likely to be served by special registration deputies — will be left out in the cold,” the group said in a statement.
LeMahieu said voters who lack the proper ID could be given paper registration forms by those conducting registration drives. Those voters could take the form home and submit it when they have acquired the proper ID, he said. Or they could register at the polls on Election Day, by which time they’ll need an ID to vote anyway.
The online registration bill had been stalled in the Legislature since the fall, then lurched back to life earlier this month when LeMahieu proposed changes. Democratic lawmakers supported the earlier version of the bill but deserted in October after concerns arose, including with its elimination of special registration deputies.