Wisconsin historically ahead of the curve in voting access

A "Vote Here" banner flaps in the breeze outside of West Allis City Hall on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.
A "Vote Here" banner flaps in the breeze outside of West Allis City Hall on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Wisconsin's voting laws have been under intense national scrutiny since 2020, when the validity of presidential election results in several battleground states were called into question by then-President Donald Trump.

This guide outlines the history of voting access in Wisconsin and the most significant laws and issues as they stand now headed into midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022.

Wisconsin historically a leader in making voting accessible

The Badger State has generally led its peers both in the Midwest and nationally in terms of voter access. Wisconsin was among the earlier groups of states that granted voting access to Black residents and then women.

Unlike states across the South, Wisconsin largely avoided curtailing that access with the discriminatory policies that were abolished through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For years, the state has ranked near the top in voter turnout.

"I would say Wisconsin was one of the most accessible states in terms of voting," said Reid Magney, who served on the state's nonpartisan election agency and now works for the voter access group Vote Riders.

Wisconsin's voting system also differs from other states in that elections are administered at the municipal level, rather than by county or statewide.

Many voters in the 20th century didn't even need to register to vote; for those living in municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents, voting simply involved showing up, giving an address and having your name written in a poll book.

Voter registration was seen by some as racially motivated, Magney said, since only large cities like Milwaukee with large Black populations maintained voter rolls.

2000 election controversy sparks push for stricter rules

The Supreme Court's controversial decision in Bush v. Gore prompted Congress to institute the Help America Vote Act in 2006. Soon after, Wisconsin began maintaining statewide voter registration.

Bush v. Gore also set Wisconsin on a slow march toward new voting access policies.

"After the 2000 election, we began to hear more and more about the idea that there was voter fraud, specifically in Milwaukee," Magney said.

Statewide Republicans began pushing for voter ID laws, though opposition from voter rights groups and Democratic Gov. James Doyle's veto pen prevented the new policies from being enacted.

When Republicans took the governor's mansion and both chambers of the Legislature after the 2010 elections, voter ID was one of their first major legislative wins. Lawsuits kept most provisions from going into effect until 2016.

The bill included restrictions on the use of university-issued IDs to vote, making most of them ineligible. Veteran IDs were also initially left off the list of acceptable IDs. By one estimate, 300,000 eligible voters lacked a photo ID, and the list of acceptable IDs left many voters confused.

Between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, when the restrictions went into effect, student turnout in Wisconsin fell sharply despite a nationwide rise. Voters of color and the elderly were also among the most affected.

Ballot boxes

Because Wisconsin's elections have historically been locally run, authority over how, when, and where residents could vote have largely been up to municipal clerks. Many set up ballots boxes and received no guidance or objection from state elections officials. In many cases, voters could place ballots in the same collection boxes that were set up for other kinds of papers, like utility bills and tax payments.

Ballot boxes became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving voters additional opportunities to submit absentee ballots during early voting periods. More than 40% of all votes cast in 2020 were through absentee ballots, including through ballot boxes and mail.

But scrutiny over that process led the state Supreme Court to ban unstaffed ballot boxes altogether, a move criticized by voting and disability rights advocates.

Acceptable voter ID

Wisconsin residents must present an acceptable form of photo ID, which include a Wisconsin driver's license, Wisconsin Department of Transportation ID, military ID, tribal ID, and U.S. passports. Full guidance on acceptable forms of ID are found on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website.

Fraud cases

Sixteen felons were charged with voting illegally in 2020, a number on par with previous elections. Ninety-four total fraud cases were referred to district attorneys, but the remainder are pending or were dismissed.

A state probe conducted by former Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman did not find new evidence of fraud or indications that the election was incorrectly called. Gableman's work has since been terminated by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Voter registration

Voters in Wisconsin do not register by party. There are 3,467,840 registered voters in July 2022.

U.S. citizens who are 18 years old or older and have resided in Wisconsin for at least 28 consecutive days prior to an election are eligible to vote. You can register to vote online or by mail at least 20 days before an election, or in-person at a municipal clerk's office.

Wisconsin is also one of 22 states and jurisdictions that allows for same-day voter registration at Election Day polling locations.

Early or absentee voting

In Wisconsin, early voting and absentee voting are considered one and the same. Such votes can be cast at designated polling places or clerk's offices during early voting period or mailed before Election Day.

Wisconsin is a no-excuse absentee voting state, meaning voters can request absentee ballots online without providing a reason.

Electioneering at polling places

Electioneering is prohibited on public property within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling location. Political candidates may not visit polling places where their name is on the ballot other than to cast their own ballot. Election observers must register with the Chief Inspector and cannot hand out campaign literature, wear campaign merchandise or otherwise interact with voters.

Rights of convicted felons

Voting rights are immediately restored to those with felony convictions when they go "off paper," meaning they completed any prison term plus parole, probation, or extended supervision.


Districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and the Wisconsin state legislature are drawn by the Republican-controlled state legislature and subject to the governor's veto.

In 2020, the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could not agree on congressional or state legislative maps, throwing responsibility to the courts. The state Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision picked a congressional map drawn by Evers and a state legislative map drawn by Republicans.

The congressional map used during the 2010s had two Democratic-leaning seats and six Republican-leaning seats. The new map drawn after the 2020 census kept the same balance but made one Republican seat in southeastern Wisconsin somewhat more competitive.

The legislative maps for the state Senate and Assembly were drawn by state Republicans and approved by the Supreme Court. The new maps tilt heavily in Republicans’ favor, with 63 of the 99 Assembly seats and 23 of the 33 Senate seats leaning toward the GOP, according to a December analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin historically ahead of the curve in voting access