Last week, the Wisconsin State Senate approved a bill that would bar early voting on weekends and cap total early voting per week at 45 hours. If this bill is passed and signed, early voting in clerks’ offices will only take place on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Utah is on the verge of passing Election Day registration; Massachusetts is set to approve early voting; and voters in Missouri are collecting signatures to put early voting on the ballot in November. But Wisconsin seems determined to march into the past. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has offered the press two explanations for this self-inflicted wound on Wisconsin’s election system: (1) rural constituents are saying “‘Why is there such a wide gap between certain parts of the state and how many hours are available to vote when that is not offered to some of those citizens that live in a very rural part of the state?’”; and (2) rural clerks do not have the staff and resources to keep the same early voting hours as cities. If you are scratching your head, don’t feel alone on this one. No one should expect rural clerks to have the same staff and resources as Milwaukee and Madison’s clerks because population sizes, demand for early voting, and strain on municipal clerks’ offices vary wildly. According to the 2010 Census, only 10 of the 1,852 municipal clerks (are responsible for over 1 million voting-age residents, or almost a quarter of Wisconsin’s voting-age population.
The five counties that embrace some of these large municipalities (Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha, Racine, and Kenosha) and their surrounding suburbs cover 1,659,923 voting-age residents, or 38 percent of the state’s voting-age population. In a nutshell, that is why there is an urban-rural “gap” in early voting demands and early voting periods. The Senate Majority Leader should recognize this.
Uniformity for uniformity’s sake in election administration makes no sense. Voting opportunities need to be tailored to the needs of a particular area and population, because the demands on election administrators are completely different in Milwaukee and Black River Falls. After all, the Constitution doesn’t require that each county or municipality be treated the same way; it requires that each voter be afforded equal treatment. And equality of opportunity to vote will often mean lengthier early voting periods in larger municipalities and shorter early voting periods in smaller municipalities.