Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner
October 25, 2023
On Tuesday, shortly after members of both houses of the Legislature wrapped up a hearing on proposals to enshrine voter ID in the Wisconsin Constitution, along with new rules to ensure that noncitizens cannot cast ballots in local elections, union members clad in purple SEIU T-shirts burst through the doors of the Capitol and marched into the rotunda, blowing whistles and chanting about fair maps and voting rights.
Christine Neumann Ortiz, executive director of the immigrant workers rights group Voces de la Frontera, addressed the young, boisterous crowd through a megaphone, denouncing “more and more bills that try to suppress the rights of working-class voters.”
In a few swift strokes, Neumann-Ortiz connected the gerrymandered voting maps that give Republicans disproportionate power in the Wisconsin Legislature to policies that hurt immigrants and working people. “We’re gonna ensure that we have strong, democratic elections in 2024 and thereafter,” she told the cheering crowd. “And we get driver’s licenses; we get union rights; we get good health care; we get women’s rights. We get all the good things that the majority of people want in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin’s Republican legislative leaders have threatened to impeach newly elected Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, Neumann Ortiz added, precisely because they don’t want the Court’s new liberal majority to rule on fair maps, or on any of those other issues that the majority of voters support. She called their last-ditch effort to sell “nonpartisan” redistricting a “sham”.
The protesters marched up the marble staircase to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office to deliver letters opposing SB488, the bill Republicans say would create a nonpartisan redistricting process, but which fair maps advocates and Democrats say would give the Legislature a backdoor avenue to gerrymander the voting maps to favor the Republican majority again.
“It’s a trick, not a treat! Vos’ bill must be beat!” the marchers chanted.
Iuscely Flores of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said voters need to understand that the redistricting proposal doesn’t adequately protect communities of color from being packed into districts or spread out so their voting power is diluted. “They are purposefully trying to exclude us from the conversation!” she declared.
The two groups of people that descended on the Capitol Tuesday — the committee members discussing election law in their carpeted hearing room and the fired-up voters who delivered their letters to Vos, stomping up the stairs, their chants and shrill whistle blasts reverberating off the marble walls, are mirror images of each other.
Each group accuses the other of stealing elections.
In the committee room on Tuesday, as Henry Redman reports, 2020 election conspiracy theorists were favorably questioned by lawmakers. The focus of the hearing was protecting against “voter fraud” — “a serious crime,” Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) told attendees.
Knodl related a story about a noncitizen in Ozaukee County who had the chutzpah to cast a ballot in a local school board race. Fortunately, he said, she was discovered and the local district attorney is prosecuting her to the full extent of the law.
Olha Vionovich, 46, a Ukrainian citizen who has been living in Mequon while she seeks asylum in the U.S. and does not speak English well, is now facing a felony conviction.
Listening to Knodl solemnly praise the district attorney in Ozaukee County for prosecuting her, I was reminded of a scene in Arcadia, Wisconsin, where the local school board in 2019 was considering cutting back school bus routes. Arcadia is heavily dependent on undocumented immigrants from Latin America who labor at Ashley Furniture and at the local chicken processing plant. Their children have saved the local public school from being shut down, boosting enrollment after years of rural population decline.
What the all-white school board failed to consider in its budget-saving proposal to pull back the bus routes was that undocumented parents, who have been barred from getting driver’s licenses in Wisconsin since 2007, were terrified to drive their kids to school. Federal immigration agents had been staking out the town around that time, and families were afraid of being separated — the parents deported and the little children left behind.
At a school board meeting, Spanish-speaking parents showed up in droves to discuss the policy. But the all-white board hadn’t bothered to hire an interpreter. At one point, Mireya Sigala, who works with El Centro de Conexión de Chippewa Valley, a nonprofit organization that supports the local Latino community, stood up and told the parents, in Spanish, “If you look up on the panel, you don’t see yourselves up there. And I strongly suggest that when the time comes around you run for a seat, because your concerns are not being heard and you’re not being represented.”
If those parents lived in Washington, D.C., or various communities in California, Maryland or Vermont that have passed local ordinances giving undocumented immigrants the right to vote in local elections, they could have elected a more responsive school board. But Wisconsin does not allow the noncitizen workers who prop up our dairy industry and much of our manufacturing, construction, food service and hospitality sectors to cast ballots.
We depend on these people to harvest our food, fix our roofs, clean our buildings. They are the lifeblood not only of Wisconsin’s dairy industry but of many small towns where the Mexican grocery stores and restaurants are revitalizing Main Street and schools that were on the point of closing because of low enrollment, and have come alive again because of an influx of Hispanic kids. But as a state, we stand firmly by the principle that they should live in the shadows — a vulnerable, unprotected workforce that has to worry about being torn from their children every time they get behind the wheel to drive to work. And now, if Knodl gets his way, we are going to enshrine a provision in the Wisconsin Constitution that slaps them with a serious felony conviction if they dare to seek representation on local boards.
In other states, communities that have recognized their own economic dependence on immigrant workers have changed policies to accommodate this essential workforce. Minnesota recently joined 18 states and Washington, D.C., in allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented workers. The states I mentioned allow voting — in local elections only — for noncitizens.
This is the danger Knodl wants to head off with his proposed constitutional amendment, because “fraudulent voting is a serious crime in Wisconsin.”
The idea that fraudulent voting should be a matter of serious public concern has, of course, gained traction because of the lies told by Donald Trump and his enablers after 2020, who didn’t want to admit their electoral loss. Those claims have been repeatedly disproven. And the idea that there is a mass of people illegally voting in numbers large enough to change the outcome of elections, who are willing to spend the time and trouble to do so and risk criminal charges, is pure fantasy.
In fact, just the opposite is true. Flores, speaking to the crowd in the rotunda, expressed her anger that the only public hearing on the Republican redistricting proposal was held on short notice, so people “who look like me and have jobs they couldn’t leave” could not attend.
What she and other activists rightly point out is that strict voter ID laws and threats of arrest and felony prosecution for voting illegally are part of a broader Republican strategy to suppress the votes of poor people, young people and people of color.
One bright spot in the anti-immigrant voting bill Knodl proposed is that it might actually reflect the progress of a movement to restore driver’s licenses to the undocumented workers who prop up Wisconsin industry. As part of a bipartisan compromise, a bill that would allow the 80% of Wisconsin dairy workers who are undocumented to get their driver’s licenses would also carry a sticker saying the holder cannot legally vote.
The collision of these issues confused Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield), who expressed her surprise during the elections hearing on Tuesday that any noncitizen could hold a driver’s license.
“The illegals! They’re trying to get driver’s licenses for people who are here illegally. Farm workers,” Rozar said. How could someone who is not a U.S. citizen use a driver’s license to vote, she asked.
Knodl explained that the part of his proposal requiring a non-voting sticker on immigrants’ driver’s licenses would apply only to people who have legal residency, such as asylum seekers and workers who have green cards, not the huge majority of Wisconsin dairy workers who — because there is no U.S. visa for year-round farm work — are working in this country illegally.
For years, Republicans in Wisconsin and around the country got away with pushing through voter suppression laws they privately acknowledged were designed to hold back voters who don’t support them.
But they can’t hold back the tide forever.
In the Capitol rotunda on Tuesday, the people the Republicans have been working so hard to suppress came together, coalescing around the very policies Republicans have concocted to try to keep them down. And they were feeling energized and happy. “Together, we’ll get there!” Christine Neumann Ortiz declared. “Sí se puede!”
That is what the Republicans most fear.