Gov. Scott Walker has joined one of the Legislature's most powerful Republicans in saying he's considering ending the state's same-day voter registration law, drawing quick criticism from leading Democrats, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
The idea was part of the agenda that Walker put forward Friday in an appearance before a sold-out crowd at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum near Los Angeles, a traditional venue for Republicans looking to run for president.
Wisconsin is one of nine states that allow voters to register at their polling place on the day of the election, and that's often credited with helping make Wisconsin's voting rate one of the highest in the country. Since the Nov. 6 election, both Walker and incoming Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) have said they're considering ending the practice, which goes back to 1976 in the state.
"States across the country that have same-day registration have real problems because the vast majority of their states have poll workers who are wonderful volunteers, who work 13-hour days and who in most cases are retirees," Walker said at the library, responding to a question from an audience member about election safeguards.
"It's difficult for them to handle the volume of people who come at the last minute. It'd be much better if registration was done in advance of election day. It'd be easier for our clerks to handle that. All that needs to be done."
The comments drew a harsh reaction from Democrats such as Barrett and state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate. Democratic candidates tend to perform better in presidential election years such as this one, when less frequent voters such as minorities and the young show up at the polls in larger numbers.
In the city of Milwaukee, for instance, 48,000 voters, or 17% of the total, registered to vote on the day of the Nov. 6 election, according to the city election commission. That helped boost turnout in the city to a whopping 87%.
Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Neil Albrecht said in an email that the state should take pride in its high voting rates. He said changes to the registration law would affect young people and renters the most.
"For example, students and people in poverty (particularly those with foreclosed homes or other residency hardships) move frequently, sometimes even monthly. We would be doing a terrible disservice to young people and people that are currently economically challenged to base access to voting on anything other than a great spirit of a participatory democracy," Albrecht said.
Albrecht sharply disagreed with Walker's characterization of retirees and other poll workers as unable to handle their work on election day, calling it a "gross misrepresentation."
"I question the motives of any person suggesting unnecessary changes (to voting laws) based on making things easier for election officials," he said.
In an interview, Barrett said that Republicans are upset with President Barack Obama's re-election amid high turnout in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the state and want to see those voting rates fall.
"Clearly the governor is upset with the election results and believes the outcome here in Wisconsin would have been different if there was no same-day registration," Barrett said. "Their goal is to suppress votes of people who don't vote for Republicans."
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), raised another issue: It is harder to check whether the addresses given by voters on election day are correct.
"I've felt we should get rid of same-day registration for years," Grothman said. "If fraud is going on, I think it will be harder to commit fraud under motor-voter than under same-day registration."
Scot Ross, head of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said there's no truth to claims of widespread fraud in which one voter impersonates another.
"To date, no Republican has been able to show that there is any impersonation voter fraud and every study shows that there is no rampant voter impropriety in the state of Wisconsin or around the country," Ross said.
A spokesman for the state Government Accountability Board had no immediate response Monday to Walker's comments.
Last year, Kevin Kennedy, the director of the state Government Accountability Board, said eliminating election-day registration would be a mistake. Because Wisconsin allows such registration, the state is exempt from a federal law requiring states to allow people to register to vote at motor vehicle centers and welfare offices. That law would kick in if election-day registration is repealed, driving up costs for taxpayers, Kennedy said.
GOP lawmakers last session considered ending same-day voter registration but decided against pursuing such legislation because of concerns over motor-voter requirements, which can also draw concerns from Republicans.
The last year has already seen a bitter legal battle over the law passed by Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls. That law was struck down as unconstitutional by two Dane County judges this year in rulings that are being appealed.
At a postelection luncheon sponsored by the website Wispolitics, Vos said he was "committed" to restoring photo ID before the 2014 elections and was willing to consider a constitutional amendment to do that. Vos also said he was revisiting the earlier decision by legislative Republicans not to pursue legislation to end same-day registration.
"I want to explore that. I want to see if there are upsides to motor-voter as opposed to same-day registration," Vos said.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie had no further comment on the governor's remarks Friday, saying that Walker "will evaluate the final version of a (same-day voter registration) bill if it reaches his desk."
(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel