Republicans lied in Wisconsin: Here's how you know the state's voter ID law is a complete sham

Wisconsin GOPers insisted the law wasn't intended to suppress the vote. A new report suggests that wasn't true

Published March 30, 2016 6:30PM (EDT)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) participates in a panel discussion at the American Action Forum in Washington January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4NN60 (Reuters)
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) participates in a panel discussion at the American Action Forum in Washington January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4NN60 (Reuters)

No rule in politics is absolute, but, generally speaking, you’d be well served to keep this one in mind: If a politician is not willing to spend money on something they say they support, then their support is about as real as Santa Claus.

Unless you view politics as nothing more than an entertaining pastime for overeducated squares who weren’t cute enough to make it in Hollywood — i.e., you actually look forward to “nerd prom,” God help you — then the point of the whole endeavor is to get big things done.

And getting big things done not only requires money but, perhaps more importantly, requires conflict. This is often because someone’s going to have to pony up, I’ll admit. But that’s not always the case; and sometimes the rejection involves turning down money, too. (See: the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.)

All of which is to say something that’s been said about politics countless times already, and will no doubt be said again and again and again: Talk is cheap. And cheap is something that public policy — if it’s good, at least — usually is not.

So when you read this report from Pro Publica's Sarah Smith, what it should tell you, as if you didn’t know already, is that the legislature in Wisconsin couldn’t care less when it comes to improving its elections. Because that is not what its voter ID law is about:

On April 5, when voters cast ballots in Wisconsin’s Republican and Democratic primaries, the state’s controversial voter ID bill will face its biggest test since Governor Scott Walker signed it into law in 2011. For the first time in a major election, citizens will be required to show approved forms of identification in order to vote. The law mandates that the state run a public-service campaign “in conjunction with the first regularly scheduled primary and election” to educate voters on what forms of ID are acceptable.

But Wisconsin has failed to appropriate funds for the public education campaign. The result is that thousands of citizens may be turned away from the polls simply because they did not understand what form of identification they needed to vote.

Doesn’t look too good for those who argue that, contrary to Democrats’ claims, voter ID laws are not intended to suppress the Democratic vote, does it? Well, it gets worse.

Because this isn’t a case of bureaucratic miscommunication; this isn’t about the state government’s left hand not knowing what its right hand is doing. According to Smith’s reporting, the decision to provide a statewide education campaign with all of zero dollars was about as intentional-looking as it gets:

Wisconsin’s failure to fund these public-service ads comes after a clash between the Government Accountability Board, the nonpartisan agency responsible for producing voter education materials, and the Republican-controlled legislature. In October, the agency met with Republican State Senator Mary Lazich, who was a primary sponsor of the voter ID bill in 2011, to inquire after funding and received a tepid response.

The board told Lazich that it would need $300,000 to $500,000 from the state legislature to broadcast advertisements. The legislature had twice appropriated money for public information campaigns during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, but the ads barely hit the airwaves before court injunctions delayed the law from going into effect.

According to Kevin Kennedy, the board’s director and general counsel, Lazich thanked the board for the information, but didn’t make any promises. Lazich did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica.

It gets better (by which, again, I mean worse). Not only did Lazich essentially ghost the Government Accountability Board, but the board was unable to find some other ally in the legislature. Why? Because the legislature was in the process of destroying the board altogether:

After the meeting, the Government Accountability Board decided against making a formal funding request to the legislature, which had already introduced a bill to dismantle the agency.

“We weren’t sure we would have a receptive audience,” Kennedy told ProPublica.

Two days after the meeting, the Wisconsin Assembly voted to replace the nonpartisan board with two partisan agencies by the end of June 2016. Since 2012, Republicans have attacked the board after it investigated, among other things, whether Governor Walker coordinated with outside political groups during the recount battle that gripped the state. Judicial orders stalled the investigation, and the board eventually took itself out of the probe. Walker, cleared of wrongdoing, survived the scandal.

The whole thing is so shameless and tawdry, you could be forgiven for wanting to simply shake your head and think about something else. And if you did, you’d simply be following the state legislature’s lead.

After all, it’s not like there’s a problem, here — at least as far as they see it. With anywhere between 200,000 to 350,000 Wisconsin citizens potentially facing disenfranchisement, according to Smith’s report, the voter ID law is on pace to work exactly as intended. Not in word, but deed.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith

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Pro Publica Sarah Smith Scott Walker Vote Suppression Voter Id Voting Rights Wisconsin