Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
On Friday, May 31 Republican representatives in the Wisconsin State Assembly introduced a massive, omnibus bill to alter our election, campaign finance and lobbying laws. It incorporates a number of proposals previously introduced as stand-alone initiatives.
A public hearing on the bill, AB 225, was held in the Assembly Elections Committee the following Tuesday. Although committee chair Rep. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) had planned a vote for two days later, at the end of the hearing she announced that the committee vote will be pushed back.
This is as fast as any bill has whizzed through the legislature over the past two and a half years. Co-author and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) said he hoped to schedule a vote in the full Assembly for later this month.
AB 225 opens the floodgates for even more dark money in Wisconsin elections by rolling back the few requirements that current law provides for disclosure of campaign financing sources. Political groups would not have to disclose the source of their financing for campaign literature or advertisements as long as they don't include the following magic words and phrases: Vote for, elect, support, cast your ballot for, (name) for (office), vote against, defeat or reject.
Jay Heck of Common Cause Wisconsin slammed the provision saying, "It doesn't take a genius to see where this would go. When all you have to say is, 'Rep. Joe Smith is bad for the environment and wants to raise your taxes,' why wouldn't you do that instead of using the magic words?"
Heck also pointed out that even as they passed the Citizens United decision that affirmed that corporate campaign donations are constitutionally protected as free speech, eight of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices "implored Congress and State Legislatures to put specific disclosure requirements in their laws so that the people would know where the money that was about to be dumped on them came from."
But Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Vice President James Buchen claimed that undisclosed corporate spending on political campaigns is constitutionally protected speech and should be shielded from persecution by the government. "The IRS scandal is a perfect example of this kind of political persecution," he said.
The bill also extends the period that lobbyists can donate to political campaigns, pushing it back several months from June 1 to the first day authorized by law for the circulations of nomination papers.
Tucked in at the end of the bill is an odd provision that prevents school districts from using state aids or property tax funds to pay for literature promoting a referendum to raise money in excess of state-mandated revenue caps.
It also includes 17 other provisions dealing with these aspects of election administration and voter registration:
--Proof of identification requirement
--Proof of residency for voter registration
--Poll book signature requirement
--Challenging an elector's registration during a recount
--Witness addresses on absentee ballot certificates
--Nominees to the Government Accountability Board
--Securing ballot containers
--Party representation at the polls
--Voting by absentee ballot in person
--Reporting of election returns by municipalities
--Fees for election recounts
--Scheduling of referendums
--Recounting votes cast with automatic tabulating equipment
--Residency of election officials
--Recall petition requirements
Wisconsin's voter ID law is still being challenged in court, but that didn't stop Republican lawmakers from filling in finer details, including making someone who can't afford to obtain a state ID swear a verbal oath and sign a declaration saying so.
Rep. Kessler called it the "oath of indigency" and slammed the measure for being another inhumane and degrading voter suppression tactic.
On voter ID, Andrea Kaminski of the League of Women Voters said, "There is no real documented voter fraud and therefore no need for voter ID law." She added, "What could Wisconsin voters possibly have done to deserve this kind of restrictive law?"
Milwaukee NAACP Vice President Tish Minor cited a study prepared for the Voces de la Frontera legal challenge against the 2010 legislative redistricting process that said it would functionally disenfranchise over 300,000 people, mostly poor, disabled and elderly. "This is getting back to using socio-economic classism as a way to prevent access to our civil rights," she said.
Tish Minor, VP of Milwaukee NAACP. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign called AB 225 the "Govern Without Public Support Act" because it violates the most basic principle of representative democracy: That the consent of the governed is required for governing. McCabe said, "By making it harder for voters to express their will while making it easier for rich and powerful interests to influence our elections, this legislation is a sweeping assault on that principle."
Wisconsin's election oversight body, the Government Accountability Board, begged the Elections Committee to slow down. In his written testimony, GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy enumerated dozens of technical and constitutional problems with the bill concluding, "The legislature would benefit from a more extensive analysis of policy issues," he said.
Rep. Vos, who is the Wisconsin state co-chair of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), attacked the GAB for not falling in line with extreme voter suppression initiatives: "In many cases the GAB has overstepped their legislative authority."
AB 225 co-authors and ALEC members Rep. Robin Vos and Rep. Jeff Stone. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
When Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee) questioned Vos about the cost to taxpayers of implementing such sweeping changes to the state's election system, without a hint of irony Vos replied, "You can't put a price on democracy."
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.