Todd Albaugh in his coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Bill Lueders
Delivering a sandwich to a young man at the table behind me, Todd Allbaugh explains that, in the grilling process, “it got turned up a little higher than normal.” The same might be said for Allbaugh. His life has been cranked to eleven.
Over the last week, Allbaugh, who runs a coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin, where our interview takes place, has drawn national media attention. He’s appeared on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” and been written up in Salon, Talking Points Memo, and Mother Jones, among dozens of other outlets. His momentary fame was launched on April 5, Election Day in Wisconsin, when he posted a comment on his Facebook page describing what was for him, as a lifelong Republican, “the last straw.”
The post recalled how, in 2011, when Allbaugh was an aide to Wisconsin state Senator Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican, he sat in the closed Senate Republican Caucus session at which the state’s law requiring voters to present photo identification was being discussed.
“A handful of the GOP senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters,” Allbaugh wrote. “Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American’s constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power.”
The post was picked up by a state Capitol reporter, then by other media. Thousands of people have come to his page. “It’s nuts,” he says, as he gets up from our interview to tend to a customer.
The closed session occurred shortly before the state’s voter ID law passed, in May 2011. The law was initially blocked by state and federal courts, with U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman declaring that it would “prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.” But these rulings were overturned, and the law has been in place for the last two Wisconsin elections—including the April 5 primary, which featured pivotal contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders as well as a pitched battle for state Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, April 12, a federal appeals court kept alive a narrow legal challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law, ruling that residents who face “daunting obstacles” to meeting the requirements should be able to vote without an ID. Federal Judge Frank Easterbrook, writing for the court, said the challenge is valid even if only one person is wrongly denied the right to vote.
“The right to vote is personal and is not defeated by the fact that 99 percent of other people can secure the necessary credentials easily,” the decision stated. The case was sent back to Adelman to work out accommodations for certain disenfranchised voters.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin is one of nine states that require voters to present a photo ID. It severely restricts what forms of ID can be used, excluding out-of-state driver’s licenses and student IDs that do not include a photo, signature, and date of issuance, along with separate proof of enrollment.
The law is controversial because it was passed to curb voter fraud, known to be phenomenally rare in Wisconsin. The real intent, critics charge, is to reduce votes from groups that lean Democratic, like students, poor people, and racial minorities, who may have a harder time producing the requisite ID.
Allbaugh says this strategy was tacitly affirmed by two senators at the closed meeting. He won’t reveal who they were, but recalls that the first said, “We need to think about what this is going to do to the neighborhoods from Milwaukee and the colleges across the state.” The second said, “What I’m interested in is winning. We all know the Democrats would use their power to go at us if they had a chance, so we have to go after this while we have the opportunity.”
Some of the senators at the closed caucus session, Allbaugh says, did express concerns about voter fraud, he thinks sincerely. And he notes that the words “voter suppression” were never uttered, but that was the obvious import of these statements and the mood in the room. “There was a happiness about it, an excitement,” he says. “Clearly, there was a political intent here.”
Allbaugh, 46, had been involved with the Republican Party since he was 12. He ran twice as a Republican for state Assembly, in 2004 and 2008, both times unsuccessfully. But during this closed caucus session, he says, “I left the Republican Party in my heart.”
He stayed on as an aide until Schultz, also rueing the turns the GOP has taken, left the legislature in January 2015. Soon afterward, Allbaugh, who now considers himself an independent, opened 5th Element Coffee, near the University of Wisconsin campus. He has three distant partners, including Alejandro Mendez of El Salvador, who in 2011 was named the World Champion Barista.
The coffee shop is getting crowded, and Allbaugh is getting up to tend to customers more frequently and for longer periods. Gone for the day are his employees, including “Mikey,” whose voting ordeal led to Allbaugh’s Facebook post.
Mikey is from California, and did not realize until the day before the April 5 election that he needed more to register to vote than just a valid ID from his home state and proof that he now lives in Madison. Under the new law, he also must present a passport or birth certificate, which was back home with his parents in Los Angeles. Even Allbaugh, who posted information on voter registration in his coffee shop, as a service for students, was unaware of this requirement.
“How many twenty-two-year-olds in Waukesha [a GOP-leaning suburb of Milwaukee] or Richland Center [which Schultz represented in the Legislature for thirty-two years] know where their birth certificate is, let alone someone whose parents are halfway across the country?” Allbaugh asks, during a break between customers.
In the aftermath of Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, the voter ID law was deemed to have had a negligible effect. The photo ID requirement, it was said, may have contributed to long lines at some polling places, but just 366 voters statewide were blocked from voting and cast provisional ballots, counted only if they subsequently presented acceptable identification to a municipal clerk.
But this tally does not include voters like Mikey, who opted not to cast a provisional ballot and then try to secure the necessary documents by the deadline of Friday, April 8. Mikey simply lost his chance to vote. As Allbaugh put it in his Facebook post:
“Here’s a young man in his early twenties, who is taking part and interested in voting for the first time in his life. He was excited to go to the polls. What kind of a state, a legislature, a political party is it that denies this young man his right? The GOP was born out of greater opportunity and equality. Wisconsin, yes the Wisconsin Republican Party, under the leadership of Republican Governor Robert M. ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette, [led] the country in creating greater voting access to its citizens. The WI GOP was seen as a shining example of equality. THAT was the party I joined in the 80’s and fought for. That party no longer exists.”
Later on the same day as Allbaugh's Facebook post, Wisconsin Congressman Glenn Grothman, who, as a state senator, had been in the closed session that day in 2011, told a Milwaukee television reporter that he liked his party’s chances in the fall election, for these reasons: “Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up and now we have voter ID and I think voter ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well.”
Grothman now insists he meant that the law would help Republicans by preventing fraud. He even called Allbaugh to argue this point, saying he believed Democrats cheated in elections but admitted that he couldn’t prove it.
Allbaugh’s response, quoted by the Wisconsin State Journal: “Don’t you think you ought to have proof beyond a doubt before you do something to impede somebody’s constitutional rights?” He thinks even a small number of people turned away at the polls, coupled with active voter suppression efforts like billboards warning of severe penalties for wayward voters, could turn the tide in some elections.
The customers keep coming. Allbaugh, noting that one of his jobs as a legislative aide was to generate positive press for his employer, jokes about his own brush with fame: “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so much press with so little effort.”
Allbaugh has tried to keep the focus on the issues, like his belief that voter ID represents a betrayal of Republican ideals, which historically included “the expansion of voting rights.” He thinks the party’s base, including the Tea Party and religious conservatives, is being used by “the 1 percenters, who don’t give a crap about these people behind closed doors.”
He should know. He’s been there.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive Magazine.