Fred Risser is a veteran Wisconsin State Senator. Actually he is the longest serving state legislator in American political history. Bald and bearded, quick to laugh, he is the genial grandfather at the family picnic.
But Risser was not feeling genial this week. Thursday he had been recognized to speak and was trying to make a point on the floor of the Wisconsin State Senate. Fred Risser was questioning the constitutionality and ethics of the Republican sponsored voter suppression bill. But Senate President Mike Ellis, the new majority leader, cut him off, loudly, practically screaming, talking right over him instead of considering Risser's important legal questions.
In over 50 years of serving in the legislature, Risser hadn't seen anything like it. When Fred Risser says that, it carries considerable weight. He was born on May 5, 1927, into a storied Wisconsin political family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the Wisconsin legislature -- all representing the state capitol district, city of Madison. Fred, now 84, was first elected to the legislature in 1956. Since he became a State Senator, he never lost an election.
So what were the Wisconsin Republicans in such a hurry to do? What made them steamroll seniority and abandon procedure? The bill in question would make it harder to vote. The Party that was supporting democracy in the Middle East, was thwarting it in the Midwest. Republican Governor Scott Walker has claimed credit for originating the voter suppression bill. But it was by vote embraced by every Republican State Senator. It made perfect sense that the Republicans didn't want to discuss the bill. Why discuss a bill that restricts people's right to express themselves?
The voter suppression bill passed by the Republican senators tripled the length of time a resident must live in their voting district, requires voters to have purchased a picture identification, eliminates the straight ticket voting option and requires voters to sign a poll list before receiving their ballots. Democrats claim that insufficient notice of these requirements will further discourage voters who show up at the polls without having complied, meaning they would need at least one more trip in order to be able to vote.
African American State Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) maintains that the bill would suppress the vote of minorities, seniors, youth and those who have recently moved or who didn't have a permanent address. State Senator Spencer Coggs, also from Milwaukee, warned that the bill would have a chilling effect on the majority of Wisconsin. "And when the majority gets a chill," lamented Coggs, "the African American community gets pneumonia."
Republicans claimed the bill was to address voter fraud. But such fraud had not been a problem. Of the 3.8 million people who voted, there were only eleven reports of felony voter fraud in the last election. In the past, Wisconsin law makers had sought ways to encourage participation in the democratic process.
As the Republicans stampeded and bullied their way to limit voting by their opponents, both on the floor of the legislature and in statewide voting booths, Fred Risser shared his thoughts:
"This legislation is nothing more than a voter suppression measure. It will have a significant negative affect on the ability of many individuals, seniors, students, rural residents, and people with disabilities to vote.
"Supporters argue this measure is necessary to stop voter fraud which has proven to be practically nonexistent in Wisconsin. The truth is that the bill's supporters want to impose as many roadblocks as possible to make it more difficult for certain segments of the population to vote.
"Wisconsin should work to find ways to strengthen election procedures and voter turnout without erecting additional barriers to disenfranchise our citizens."
It was particularly heartfelt for Fred Risser, who as a young legislator, in 1959, had voted to give public employees the right to join unions and bargain collectively. Now in Wisconsin, the first state in the union to confer these constitutional rights, Republicans sought to suppress the popular vote in order to take away collective bargaining and break these unions.