Wisconsin clerk rejects early voting site: Is that a form of voter suppression?

An official in Green Bay, Wis., sought to block an early voting location on a college campus, fearing that it would encourage more members of a Democratic-leaning student body to vote.

Steven Senne/AP
Gloria Rosenlund, of Worcester, Mass., departs an early voting location on Monday. Voters in Massachusetts can cast their ballots before Election Day for the first time this year as the state joins a growing number that has implemented early voting.

A Wisconsin city clerk raised concerns about opening an early voting site on the state university’s Green Bay campus in part because she feared it would encourage more Democratic-leaning students to vote, a move that some say could suppress the vote along partisan ties.

As early voting becomes a more popular choice for people across the nation, political parties have tried to strategically use or block the option, which tends to appeal most to low-income voters who don’t necessarily have flexible schedules or time to wait in line to vote on one designated day. In theory, early voting strengthens a democracy by increasing participation. Thirty-four states and Washington D.C. now open select polling locations early to any voters who wish to cast their ballots before Nov. 8, while others offer mail-in absentee ballots to voters who have a valid excuse to miss in-person voting. Academic experts estimate that some 40 percent of US voters will take part in the trend this year. Still, many say it’s too early to tell if early voting will shift the election’s outcome by giving more voters the opportunity to have their say or if it will simply absorb decided voters on an earlier date.

But certain restrictions and gaps in access have led some to wonder: Do states and municipalities that don’t offer early voting engage in some form of voter suppression that favors one party over another?

“Historically, voting extension and restrictions have always been driven by competition” along partisan lines, Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “There’s some evidence that when states have cut back on early voting, particularly in the southeast, particular segments of the population are harmed, like African Americans.”

Somewhat like voter ID laws that require those at the polls to show some form of state-certified identification before completing their ballot, restrictions on early voting could have a negative impact on minority and low-income voters, who currently tend to vote for Democrats.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay serves as a polling location on Election Day for students and area residents. But city clerk Kris Teske said she didn’t want to open the site to early voting after Rep. Eric Genrich, a Green Bay Democrat, requested approval.

While arguing that the initiative could run up costs and raise issues with ballot security, Ms. Teske also worried that making voting more accessible to students would favor the Democratic party, according to emails obtained by One Wisconsin Institute, a liberal advocacy group based in Madison, Wisc. 

“UWGB is a polling location for students and residents on Election Day but I feel by asking for this to be the site for early voting is encouraging the students to vote more than benefiting the city as a whole,” she wrote in an email on Aug. 26 to Nathan Judnic, an attorney for the state Elections Commission. “I have heard it said that students lean more toward the democrats and he [Genrich] is a democrat.... Do I have an argument about it being more of a benefit to the democrats?”

Mr. Judnic responded saying he was hesitant to base any decision on the fact that she’d simply “heard” students might vote for more Democrats, but that she wasn’t required to document any specific reason for refusing to open satellite polling locations.

In Wisconsin, there are statutes that prohibit establishing early polling locations that may give one party an advantage over the other, but the perception that students might vote more Democratic at a site that’s also open on Election Day likely doesn’t qualify as a bias that would create a Democratic advantage. That law, Dr. Gronke says, isn’t a common one in states that offer early voting, and could put officials like Teske in a tough position.

“It wasn’t some vast ... right-wing conspiracy,” Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff for Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, told the Associated Press. She said Teske was simply trying to abide by the law, not suppress student voting. 

In states where Republicans have tried to restrict access to early voting, there has been push back, with officials citing how limited opportunities can suppress voter turnout.

“It’s been litigated by the Department of Justice in a number of states where there have been attempts to cut back on access to early voting. Some of those restrictions have been overturned,” Gronke, who teaches political science courses at Reed College in Portland, Ore., says. “That litigation activity certainly will continue.”

Early voting can increase turnout by 2-4 percent, he added. Whether those numbers favor Democrats in 2016, however, has yet to be seen.

“The evidence shows that early voting tends to be used more heavily by Democrats,” Michael Herron, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, tells the Monitor. “One of the big questions is, when you change availability of different ways of voting, what do people do? I don’t think the literature has nailed that one down.”

While Democrats have historically harnessed early voting as a way to help low-income voters in densely populated urban areas get to the polls at their convenience, more Republicans have begun accessing the tactic as well in addition to mail-in absentee ballot voting, turning out their supporters prior to the end of the campaign.

In Florida, for example, the tally of early voting shows that an equal number of Democrats and Republicans had requested a record 3.1 million early ballots, compared with 2008 when Republicans had a slight edge, Fox News reports. But registered Republicans now have a slight lead – 1.8 percentage points - in the nearly 1 million ballots cast by this past Friday.

Party operatives are using early voting results to gauge Election Day outcomes, but some experts say the numbers aren’t reliable enough to make solid assumptions about who will win the presidency overall.

Despite a possible decline in partisan use of early voting, some still levy arguments against it. 

“If your goal is to make it as easy as possible to vote, which I would imagine you generally want, then early voting is good,” Dr. Herron says. “Is there some cost in the fact that people voting might not get the full information [as the campaign continues]? I suppose there’s some. The big argument against only having voting on one day is that it’s very difficult to make it there. And early voting makes it possible."

That's why many see the strategy as one that increases opportunities for people to exercise their rights, and argue that early voting shouldn’t be used as for partisan gain.

“As more people vote early, it will become less partisan. I think that’s a good thing,” Gronke says. “I don’t think any political party should have as its strategy restricting access to polling.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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