Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Wisconsin Republicans made a mockery of the state senate again on Thursday.
“Never in my 55 years of service have I seen the type of procedure—or lack of procedure—as I have seen in this house,” said veteran senator Fred Risser after the senate president, Republican Mike Ellis, had curtly cut him off from discussing what critics call the Voter Suppression Bill. “Why do they stoop to this when they have the votes?”
To see the video of Ellis, with the gavel, ramming the bill through, click here.
While ostensibly written to curb voter fraud, the 25-page bill does not address the causes of the actual cases of fraud that have occurred in Wisconsin, which primarily involve votes cast by felons. This bill extends the length of residency before one may register to vote from 10 to 28 days, eliminates party-line voting, requires voters to sign the poll list, pushes back the deadline to get an absentee ballot to the Friday before the election, and most notably requires every voter to present a state driver’s license or a passport or a military or tribal ID or a naturalization certificate in order to vote. It would allow some student IDs to qualify, but notably not the ones that the University of Wisconsin issues.
Democrats have been quick to point out that this piece of legislation was being pushed through quickly due to the recall elections of Republican senators coming up in July. While the voter ID portion of the bill won’t become effective until January, there may be enough confusion at the polls to make for sloppy elections. Senator Kathleen Vinehout put it bluntly, “Rewrite the rules and you win the game, and that’s what’s been happening since January. Today we saw rewriting the rules about elections and about the rules about how the Senate operates.”
Earlier in the morning, the Republican-controlled Senate Organization Committee met and decided to limit debate on the bill to one hour and to schedule the vote for 11a.m.
Democratic senator Bob Jauch quipped: “Apparently at 11am the State Capitol turns into a pumpkin. Actually, it ought to. History will show that today is the day that democracy died in Wisconsin. Attacks on workers rights, restriction on access to the Capitol, attacks on voters rights. Today Republicans are limiting speech – limiting the right of the minority to speak against the tyranny of a group gone mad. This is a pattern of dictatorial madness.”
According to Democratic Senator Tim Cullen, who has served as the Senate Majority Leader for four and a half years in the past, the only time that Democrats voted to limit debate while in the majority was when they had the consent of the minority. He further observed, “The vast majority of people cannot handle power. That was blatantly on display this morning.”
When her turn came to speak on the floor, Senator Lena Taylor commented, “One hour to vote? Wow. Your progressive ancestor Bob La Follette is rolling in his grave. You will bend over backward for the corporate world. Keep the power in the ruling business class, but to hell with the values of the working people of Wisconsin. To hell with the constitution and the rights of people.”
Senator Risser was delivering his comments on the bill when the witching hour arrived. As Senator Ellis stood to order the vote, Senator Erpenbach rose to make a motion to adjourn. He continually asked why he wasn’t being recognized on the floor as Ellis ordered the clerk to call the roll voting on the question of concurrence (agreeing to pass the bill as amended that was sent to the Senate from the Assembly). A majority of Democratic Senators then left the floor in protest of the rules violation while Ellis ordered the Clerk to continue. Only five of the Democratic Senators’ votes were recorded. It is typical for the President to ask for unanimous consent for votes to be added to the record after the roll has been called and closed, but that did not occur in this case. Senator Jauch returned to the floor and asked for his vote to be counted, but Ellis had already adjourned the body.
At that point, members of the public who had packed the Senate Gallery erupted into cries of “Shame!” and “Sieg Heil!” As a young man read a speech about the history of the struggle for voting rights in America, Senator Spencer Coggs stood on the Senate floor with his fist raised, while other Democrats gave him the thumbs up. At the conclusion of the speech, the gallery, which included many members of the Solidarity Sing Along group, broke into the Wisconsin version of “We Shall Overcome” ending with the verse, “Walker won’t be Governor/Walker won’t be Governor/Walker won’t be Governor someday/SOME DAY SOON!”
Governor Scott Walker is due to sign the bill next Wednesday afternoon.