News Column

Ending Same-day Voter Registration Would Cost $5.2 Million, Board Finds

Dec. 11, 2012

Patrick Marley

Ending election-day registration in Wisconsin will cost the state $5.2 million or more initially, won't reduce the administrative work of clerks and will still allow some people to register at the polls because of a federal law.

Those details were included in a report sent to lawmakers Friday by the Government Accountability Board, which runs state elections.

Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) are working on a bill to end the ability of voters to register to vote at the polls. GOP Gov. Scott Walker supports the idea, but Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) has cautioned that Republicans who control the Legislature have not yet decided what they want to do on the matter.

The report also said ending election-day registration would dramatically increase the provisional ballots that are cast in the state. Provisional ballots are cast when voters who don't appear on a poll list contend they are registered. Provisional ballots are not counted on election day, and clerks and voters have until the Friday after an election to determine if they were indeed registered and had the ability to vote. Any valid votes are counted at that point and added to the total.

"Procedures for election officials to issue, process and canvass provisional ballots are more complex and time-consuming than are those for regular ballots," the report said.

In addition, an increase in provisional ballots could delay the public from knowing the results in close elections. When the results are narrow, the outcome wouldn't be known until the provisional ballots are reviewed and counted.

Currently, provisional ballots are given out only rarely in Wisconsin because most disputes can be resolved using same-day registration. If people don't show up on the voter rolls but believe they are registered, they can simply fill out registration forms at the polls and vote.

Wisconsin has allowed people to register at the polls since 1976. Because of the state law allowing election-day registration, Wisconsin is exempt from aspects of the federal Motor Voter Act of 1993 and the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. Eliminating election-day registration would make those provisions kick in and require people to be given voter registration forms at Division of Motor Vehicles offices and public assistance offices.

Even if lawmakers repeal the election-day registration law, those who moved within the same jurisdiction between elections would still be able to update their voter registrations at the polls under federal law.

Federal law would also require Wisconsin clerks to keep names on their poll lists for longer periods of time. Removing voters from the list would be a more costly, cumbersome process that would require sending mail to all voters in an effort to weed out those who have moved, died or otherwise should come off the rolls.

About 10% to 15% of voters register to vote or update their addresses at the polls during major Wisconsin elections. The law is credited with giving Wisconsin one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation.

Change would cost millions

The accountability board estimated in its report that ending election-day registration would cost the state $5.2 million for the first two years -- $1.9 million for increased costs to maintain voter lists, $1.2 million in computer system upgrades, $1.2 million for an ad campaign and voter outreach and more than $800,000 for training and adding staff.

Some of those costs would be recurring. The figures do not include the costs to other state agencies that would have to offer voter registration forms to the public and forward any returned forms to election officials. Those costs are expected to be tallied in a follow-up report due at the end of the month.

The accountability board noted that its cost estimates are rough because expenses could change significantly depending on the exact wording of any legislation.

Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) said he had not yet reviewed the material from the accountability board and remained committed to trying to end election-day registration.

"They ought to push that out of the chute," he said. "It should be on the floor in January."

He said he believed election-day registration made it easier to commit voter fraud, though he acknowledged he had no evidence to support that is happening.

"It would be harder to cheat under Motor Voter and that's why we should go with Motor Voter," he said. "I can't prove it, but we all believe it."

Source: (c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by MCT Information Services

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