MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s elections board heard Tuesday from both supporters and opponents of allowing voters to register at the polls on election day, an issue that’s gotten new attention after Gov. Scott Walker talked recently about his desire to see the law overturned.
Walker subsequently took a softer stand, after the Government Accountability Board issued a preliminary report that put the cost at overturning the law at $5.2 million initially and about $1 million a year after that. Walker last week said he wouldn’t sign a bill that costs that much, but he stopped short of saying he would veto any proposal or sign something that costs less.
A pair of Republican lawmakers said they plan to introduce a bill doing away with election day registration, even though Walker has said it’s not a priority of his and believes debating it is a distraction.
Election day voter registration has served the state well since it started in 1976, said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. There is no evidence that same-day registration has caused significant problems and eliminating it would hurt voter turnout, she told the board.
Officials should focus on positive reforms that will increase turnout, Kaminski said.
The Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association has passed a resolution opposing elimination of same-day registration, said its president, Vikki Zuehlke, clerk of the village of Waterford. She specifically cited the costs outlined in the report as a concern.
Tom Vandervest, an election inspector in Middleton, told the board he was extremely upset with talk about same-day registration possibly being eliminated.
“We live in a democracy and we feel our rights are being chipped away one by one,” he said. People can be registered to vote at the polls without causing long lines, he said.
State Rep. Don Pridemore, a Republican from Hartford who is running for state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, told the board he observed a long line of people waiting to register at a Milwaukee polling station in the Nov. 6 election.
Pridemore told the board he would be introducing a bill to address how long it takes to register at the polls, but did not give any details about what it would say.
Others advocated for doing away with election day registration entirely, saying it opened the door to voter fraud and was a distraction for clerks.
The GAB’s estimated $5.2 million cost for eliminating election day registration is “outrageous,” said Ardis Cerny of Pewaukee, a close observer of elections and advocate for requiring photo identification at the polls to combat fraud. She said elections board staff complicated the issue with its report and questioned the accuracy of its cost estimates.
The cost is primarily driven by requirements the state would face if it were to eliminate election day registration. Elimination of the state law would make Wisconsin immediately subject to both the National Voter Registration Act and 2002’s Help America Vote Act. The state also would have to establish a system for offering voter registration services at state offices where people get driver’s licenses and at agencies that provide public assistance or administer programs that assist people with disabilities.
The GAB’s $5.2 million cost estimate doesn’t include projected expenses by other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, that would be affected by the law change. A final report, to be done as soon as next week, will include those estimates as well as comments from election clerks and other states, said GAB attorney Mike Haas.
The elections board in March 2011 went on record in opposition to eliminating election day registration. On Tuesday, the board did not reaffirm that stand or take any new position.
The board also heard numerous reports of problems from the Nov. 6 presidential election, particularly from poll observers who said they were harassed or otherwise prevented from watching the voting and registration process. One of those who complained about his experience was Pridemore, who said he was asked to leave a Milwaukee polling station when he was observing voters.
The nearly 300 observers sent around the state by the League of Women Voters did not encounter any significant problems, Kaminski said. She said work by the GAB to better train poll workers and election clerks, particularly in identifying which documents can be used to establish proof of residence, had paid off as witnessed by smoother operations on election day.
Haas, the board attorney, said hearing about reports of problems now was beneficial but it is better to get them as they occur so the board can react and attempt to resolve them immediately.
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