By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
When I moved into my new apartment last year, there were a few things I expected to hear from my landlord. Tuesday is garbage pickup day — except for recyclables, that’s Wednesday. Be courteous to the other tenants, keep the apartment clean and pay the rent on time.
But if I was living in Madison now after passage Tuesday of a city ordinance, my landlord also would be required to hand me a document I never expected to see: a voter registration application.
The idea comes from Madison Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci, a 28-year-old former legislative aide to state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, whose district is one of the highest transient areas of the state capital. Many of Madison’s renters are young professionals moving to better accommodations or college students attending University of Wisconsin-Madison. Citywide, such a rental merry-go-round leads to thousands of new renters and updated voter registration data every year.
Maniaci says the ordinance helps tenants who may not know where their new polling place is and assists the Madison City Clerk’s Office, which is swamped with same-day voter registrations every election.
Landlords say the ordinance has nothing to do with basic housing concerns and is the work of politically minded aldermen who want landlords to do the heavy lifting for groups who traditionally do voter registration.
Nancy Jensen, executive director of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, said she believes the city council is overreaching. “Are we going to require landlords to offer packets of oatmeal in the morning, too?” Jensen told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Count me on the side of the landlords. It’s not their job to ensure I vote or if I’m even on the voter rolls. It’s mine.
The proper job of landlords is to ensure the apartment, house or building they rent is safe and maintained. I don’t expect them to make sure I show up at a polling place on Election Day.
Are the landlords of Madison supposed to buy toilet paper next? How about making sure there’s a fully stocked fridge at all times as well?
Maybe I should stop right there. Knowing how Madison politics are, such suggestions might be added to next month’s city council agenda.
The question is whether this ordinance will survive. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin may pull out his veto pen. Even the state Legislature is interested in enacting a pre-emption law to nullify the Madison ordinance. Leading the effort is state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, who, in a news release, said the city is asking landlords to violate State Statute 12.09(3).
That statute reads that no person or group, or through the work of agents, may compel anyone to vote or not vote in any election. Grothman reasons that the Madison City Council forcing landlords to deliver voter registration forms to anyone would be electioneering.
Legislative action to overturn the local ordinances isn’t unprecedented in Wisconsin. In 2011, local Milwaukee officials lobbied the Legislature to pre-empt an ordinance passed by direct referendum that made all employers in Milwaukee give each employee five days of mandatory sick leave regardless of an individual company’s policy. Years earlier, the Legislature pre-empted a “living wage” ordinance passed in Madison.
If you’re wondering who benefits from the law, consider: If the ordinance is killed, renters still can register under Wisconsin’s liberal same-day voter registration laws. If it’s upheld, on the other hand, local politicians and third-party groups will have fresh voter registration lists to lobby and advertise to.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.