The last freely democratic election day in Wisconsin began before 7 a.m. in the lobby of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church at 31st and Thurston on the near northwest side of Milwaukee.
The chief inspector for the day in Ward 157 was Pat (OK, I’m bad with names. I think it was Pat. Let’s call her Pat.). Pat is a retired but hardly elderly woman who spent the entire day treating her staff, all election observers and her beloved voters with respect, understanding and – yes – love. I got there shortly before 7 and stayed out of the way while Pat’s staff of seven or eight made their final preparations and a small group of voters gathered patiently at the entrance. At 7:00 a.m. sharp, Pat invited the voters to the tables where her workers were ready with voter lists; checking off names, handing out ballots, and proceeding with the smooth administration of the ultimate exercise of their sacred franchise.
After the first flush of voters came and went, Pat took the time to come over and talk to me, moving her face closer than you’d expect from a stranger, but that was Pat – she talked that way to everyone – even the Republicans who were there off and on during the day (always in pairs – what did they think was going to happen? Didn’t they trust each other?). A charming woman with a story to tell if you had the time – and, boy, did I ever have the time – Pat chatted about what she and her husband did before retirement, about how long she had been running these elections, about anything you wanted to talk about – except politics.
Once in a while, she would spot a familiar voter and give them a big hug and spend some time catching up on the kinds of things people catch up on during these too-few civic gatherings. A rejected ballot would immediately get her expert and kind attention. She would take the voter aside and explain why the machine spit it back (usually an overvote – voting for more than one candidate in a particular race), give them a fresh ballot, always making sure, as best she could, that the voter accomplished what they came there to do – record a vote for the candidate(s) of their choice.
In other words, Pat wasn’t there to be a Photo ID-checking traffic cop – she was there to help people vote in a biennial ritual of community decision-making. Who knows how many of the mostly working-class African American and elderly voters in Ward 157 who properly stated their name and address and received a ballot would have found themselves without a photo ID and been turned away under the state Republicans’ promised voter suppression scheme?
There was at least one undeniably eligible voter from November 2nd who would not have been able to receive a ballot under Photo ID, much less with the elimination of on-site registration also promised by the local puppets of the RNC. A woman came in mid-day and, as she probably had every two years for the past 20 years, gave the workers her name and address and asked for her ballot. One problem – her name had mysteriously disappeared off the rolls. After a half-hour of phone calls, she was told that her registration was moved to another ward, to an address of an income property that she had bought in the past year. She still lived in ward 157 – never moved her residence. But the city, in it’s wisdom, somehow moved or eliminated her registration by mistake.
So, what’s a voter to do? Should she have driven over to the ward of the rental property she owned? I can hear Belling’s screeching now – woman votes where she doesn’t live! She wasn’t going to do that. All she wanted was a damn ballot – her ballot, after all. But wait! You get knocked off the rolls by accident, there is (or was) an easy solution – she can re-register on-site! But she didn’t bring a photo ID or a utility bill or any of the other proof of residence allowed under current law. I suggested that someone vouch for her, which is my favorite last-resort aspect of the law -- if a registered voter (with ID!) knows you and knows you live at the address you give, they can vouch for you without you having to come up with any documentation. Alas, she had come there alone and nobody could vouch for her.
She was pissed – what was supposed to take 5 minutes was now stretching into an hour. She didn’t want to go home and get her damn ID and come back – why should she have to? She left and no one knew if she would return. But she did, about an hour later. Registered on site. Voted. Another disenfranchisement avoided by Pat, her crew and Wisconsin’s progressive election law.
There would be no recourse for her under the new Republican regime. Her vote would be lost and the historical purpose of Wisconsin election law – if you’re eligible, you get to vote – would be defeated.
There’s another story about an elderly black woman who I gave a ride to from an assisted living facility that day. That wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, but a call came in to one of the poll workers that she needed a ride and I needed some fresh air anyway, so I volunteered. Very kind, polite and fragile, it took an hour to get her from the home, into the voting booth in her walker, and back to the home again. She was old enough to remember a time when she was not allowed to vote – if she was down south, definitely so. No one else at the assisted living facility seemed to be all that fired up about it, but she seemed to feel it was her duty. Imagine next year, when she goes to the polling place and finds out that she can’t vote because she doesn’t have a photo ID. What sense does that make?
Not that the Republican’s care. Every missed vote in a place like Ward 157 is a victory for them. There was a white Republican voter who showed up in the middle of the day and made a point of showing his driver’s license to the workers, waving it around to all of them in the room. “See, it’s me,” he bragged, making his point that everyone should have to show it. The workers shrugged, gave him his ballot and off he went. He’ll always have his goddamn ID. So what? It doesn’t make him a better citizen than the elderly black woman or anybody else. But he sure thinks it does.
One thing you didn’t see in Ward 157 that day was any hint of fraud. The voters came in and took their duty seriously. The workers were diligent and checked the rolls and counted the ballots. Various quiet dramas were resolved, with no fanfare. The voters were presumed honest and eligible, with no reason to believe otherwise. The day ended as it began, with careful calculations and protection of the ballots. And a hug from Pat.
Things are going to look much different in Ward 157 and every other polling place in the state when the new restrictions on voting take effect. Voters will be presumed guilty until proven eligible. Photo ID and prior registration will be demanded. Thousands of eligible voters will be turned away or, as the Republicans want, won’t try to vote at all. The first election under the new law will be a dark day indeed.