Residents testify on voter suppression at Milwaukee hearing
Published – July 21st, 2018 By Ahmed Elbenni, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
For Helen Harris, voting is a family tradition.
She was born in Louisiana when Jim Crow ruled the day and her parents weren’t legally allowed to vote. Later in life, after her parents moved to Milwaukee, that right was something they treasured. Her mother cast her last vote in the 2012 presidential election at the age of 95.
Harris continued her parent’s tradition, voting in every election from school board to governor. But in 2011, a redistricting of Wisconsin’s assembly district lines left her stranded in an affluent, primarily Republican district far removed from her formerly majority Democrat one.
“I just don’t feel that the things that I care about and the things that I value are being represented by the people that we have in office now in our district,” she said.
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Harris was testifying Saturday afternoon at a hearing held by the National Commission for Voter Justice. The event was held between 1 and 4 p.m. at the Milwaukee Bar Association, 424 E. Wells St.
The hearing was meant to give Wisconsin residents a chance to give personal testimony of voter suppression, much like a hearing at a trial would.
While those at the hearing characterized the state’s voting laws as “voter suppression,” Republican officials who put them in place call them “voting integrity” efforts. GOP Gov. Scott Walker has said Wisconsin’s voter ID law was aimed at making it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
Attendees from Wisconsin included Milwaukee NAACP President Fred Royal, political writer John Nichols and state Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee). The hearings have taken place in several states including Michigan, Florida and California. The commission plans to hold 16 more, according to commission President Barbara R. Arnwine.
Former law professor William Whitford explained that Harris had been “cracked,” which means that the redistricting plan had spread out the votes of voters of a particular party across so many districts that the party never gained a majority of the votes.
Whitford claimed that this is what Republicans had done with the 2011 redistricting plan, effectively suppressing Democratic voters.
“Wisconsin has one of the most extreme partisan gerrymandering in the modern era in the past 50 years, by almost any metric,” Whitford said.
Whitford and Harris are plaintiffs in Gill vs. Whitford., which was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled against the Democratic challenge to Wisconsin’s GOP-friendly legislative map. The case is now before a lower court.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founding executive director of Voces de la Frontera, said that partisan gerrymandering effectively instituted “a one-party regime,” and exacerbated political polarization.
Aside from partisan gerrymandering, the lack of information available to voters emerged as one of the main examples of voter suppression throughout the testimonies.
“What we need now is less advocates and more organizers,” said Molly McGrath, a voting rights attorney with the Wisconsin ACLU. She suggested that resources be dedicated to educating people on how to vote and ensuring they know their voter rights.
She highlighted the case of formerly incarcerated people. In her experience, many of them didn’t realize they had reacquired the right to vote once they were off probation. In some cases, people went decades without voting because of this lack of information.
“A lot of organizations wouldn’t need to fundraise if I had a dollar for every time this happened,” she said.
Identification is required at the polls for all voters, but the system for acquiring free IDs for those without birth certificates remains murky. The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to make a decision on an ACLU lawsuit concerning voter ID laws that is over a year in the making.
Linda Sundstrom of Supermarket Legends, an organization that helps register voters, showed the commission four pages’ worth of alterations to Wisconsin’s voter laws since 2011.
“Everybody is confused,” she said. “I do training, and people come out of my training with their eyes spinning around. It’s a big problem. This was a deliberate introduction of confusion into the process.”
Mercedes Hidalgo, 56, noted that the instructions for renewing her driver’s license “looks like they’re asking for a curriculum vitae.” While she was fine because she was fluent in English, she noted that someone who wasn’t would be intimidated.
“I’m still intimidated,” she said. “To be honest with you, renewing my passport would be easier than renewing my driver’s license.”
Mary Pirrello, after moving back to Milwaukee from Bloomington, Illinois, after six months, applied at a DMV to switch her Illinois driving license back to Wisconsin. She was told that a new rule instituted under Gov. Scott Walker meant that she would be mailed her new license rather than receiving it directly over the counter.
A series of unclear legal complications resulted in Pirello’s mail being held up “somewhere” for several months. Despite applying in January, she was not able to acquire her new license until May. In the meantime, she was unable to vote in the February and April primaries, she said.