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Assault on Democracy in Wisconsin: Proposed Bill Would Enact Voter ID, Limit Early Voting and Expand Lobbyist Influence

Announced just before holiday weekend, Republican bill is so huge, it's difficult to know where to start dismantling it.

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A Wisconsin legislator has managed to bundle nearly all of the excesses associated with dirty elections into a single bill that good government advocates are describing as a "sweeping assault on democracy:" the legislation would try reinstating restrictive voter ID requirements, make it easier for donors to secretly influence elections, expand lobbyist influence, restrict early voting, and make it harder to register, among other measures.

The legislation is "so huge, covers so much ground, and has so many independently controversial parts of it," that it appears "intended to cut-out any public input or to render [that input] meaningless," says Andrea Kaminski, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Announced on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, and in the midst of the budget-writing process that consumes most state news coverage, the bill from Rep. Jeff Stone (R) seems designed to be rushed-through before the public has a chance to respond.

Eliminates Most Disclosure Requirements

The most troubling provision in the bill, says Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause Wisconsin, is that it "codifies protection [from disclosure] for phony issue ads."

Wisconsin, like most of the country, saw millions spent in the 2012 elections on so-called "issue ads" whose donors skirted disclosure requirements by stopping short of urging viewers to "vote for" or "vote against" a candidate. Because of the "issue ad" loophole,  voters do not know how much was actually spent on elections, and most importantly, they don't know where the money came from.

The state elections board  issued rules in 2010 to help close the issue ad loophole but  has not enforced them, likely fearing a court challenge. "This bill would guarantee they are never enforced and nullify the rule," said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "It would enshrine the issue ad loophole in state law."

Under Rep. Stone's bill, disclosure is only required for communications that explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate -- completely excluding the sham "issue ads" from disclosure requirements.

"Not only are we not going to do anything about phony issue ads, we are going to give further protection" to donors who want to influence elections from the shadows, Heck said.

Recent developments show what a charade this phony "issue ad" loophole really is. The pro-school privatization group American Federation for Children  told Wisconsin's elections board it spent only $345,000 on ads on state legislative races in 2012, but told its funders that it spent $2.4 million. The difference between the amount reported and the total actually spent is likely attributable to the issue ad loophole.

Earlier this year, bipartisan legislation  was introduced to tighten up this loophole by requiring disclosure whenever "issue ads" mentioning a candidate are run within 60 days of an election. But Stone's bill goes the opposite direction, legitimizing the illicit secrecy that has increasingly marked elections.

Establishes New Voter ID Restrictions

After Governor Scott Walker and a GOP-dominated legislature took power in 2011, Wisconsin was one of several states to pass a law requiring an ID to vote. The law threatened to disenfranchise more than 300,000 voters who did not have the required forms of ID, primarily people of color, students, and the elderly -- voters who had turned out in record numbers just a few years earlier to elect President Obama. Wisconsin's law was subsequently struck down by two separate state courts on grounds that  its burdens were too severe and it imposed eligibility requirements beyond those provided by the Wisconsin Constitution.