While many historical obstacles to voting have been eliminated over the years, some challenges remain and resemble those of the past, according to a Thursday presentation sponsored by the Diversity Action Team of Rock County.
The organization held a virtual presentation titled “So You Think You Can Vote?” It covered the history of voting in the U.S. and the challenges that still exist for people trying to exercise their right to do so.
The overarching theme: Everyone who can vote should vote.
The presentation came two weeks and five days before the Nov. 3 general election to decide, among many other things, who will be president come January.
This election already carries a historical distinction as unprecedented numbers of people are voting absentee because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lisa Johnson of the League of Women Voters encouraged people to plan now for how and when they will vote. Wisconsin residents can no longer register to vote online for the November election but can register at polling places on Election Day.
Philip Chen, a political science professor at Beloit College, said many explicitly racist and discriminatory acts of voter suppression—such as literacy tests and poll taxes—have long been outlawed.
But obstacles to voting still exist, specifically for marginalized groups such as people of color, indigenous people, low-income people, people with disabilities and others, Chen said.
Chen focused on two issues—voter ID laws and gerrymandering.
Voter ID laws, while not overtly discriminatory, can be suppressive by way of how the laws are carried out and because of those who more often are affected by the laws, Chen said.
Wisconsin is one of 33 states that requires showing identification to cast a vote. Wisconsin’s law requires a valid photo ID.
Enforcement of the law lies heavily in the hands of poll workers, an aspect of the law similar to the discriminatory handling of literacy tests prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Chen said.
A New Mexico study showed 69% of all voters were likely to be asked for an ID at the polls, Chen said, while Hispanic voters were asked to show ID 85% of the time.
Voter ID laws also erect barriers for people who are less likely to have an ID—most often people of color or low-income individuals, Chen said.
Meanwhile, gerrymandering can lead people to think their vote matters less when their districts are not competitive, possibly discouraging people from voting, Chen said.
Critics have said Wisconsin’s legislative maps, drawn in 2010 by a Republican Legislature and approved by then-Gov. Scott Walker, are heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans. That makes for less competitive races in state and federal elections, Chen said.
Chen noted absentee voting and recent distrust of the U.S. Postal Service could cause further challenges to the November election but are not yet considered widely as suppressing voting.
Voters will be able to do in-person absentee voting starting Tuesday, Oct. 20. Voters should contact their municipal clerks or visit myvotewi.gov for more information.