The Truth Behind Wisconsin’s Voter ID Law

By Jennifer Jacquot-DeVries October 4, 2016
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0)
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0)

At Project Vote, we aim to build and mobilize an electorate that accurately represents our diverse American citizenry. So, this summer, when Project Vote was awarded a grant to help people get the ID they need to vote this year, the first thing we did was connect with organizations working in this specific field. We wanted to see how we could collaborate and support the work already underway.

This new funding opportunity led us to Molly McGrath, the dedicated attorney and National Campaign Coordinator at VoteRiders, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization working to help voters obtain the documents required for their voter ID.

Today, we are outraged by the reality of current voting rights violations, but delighted to showcase an organizer doing critically important work in Wisconsin.

Ms. McGrath is based in Wisconsin, a state that has been governed in recent years by Governor Scott Walker. Because voting laws aren’t created in a vacuum, I’ll remind you that one of Governor Walker’s first moves upon taking office in 2011 was to dismantle collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, a move that triggered massive protests in a state that once championed its roots as farmers and unionized workers.

Later in 2011, Walker and his Republican colleagues enacted one of the strictest new registration and voting laws in the nation, including a strict photo ID requirement and other rules that made voter registration field programs in the state nearly impossible.

Sadly, the truth behind Wisconsin’s new voter ID laws is a thinly veiled effort to keep some citizens from casting a ballot. There are many reasons that low-income, law-abiding citizens—who have the inherent right to vote—might not have the ID Wisconsin now requires to cast a ballot. Individuals with a very low-income often cannot afford to pay fees to obtain a new birth certificate (which is often required to get a new ID). They may not drive a car or fly, so some voting-eligible citizens may have little need for a current photo ID in their daily lives. Others, such as young people who tend to move regularly, or college students living away from home for the school year, might not have a current, in-state ID. Suddenly, with this new law, these citizens might not be able to exercise their right to vote.

And it’s no accident that this law is most likely to impact low-income residents, minorities, and young people. In fact, a federal judge struck down the Wisconsin voter ID law this summer, determining that it discriminated against minorities. An appeals court reinstated the law, but only with the understanding that Wisconsin’s motor vehicles offices are supposed to provide individuals without ID a temporary credential that would be accepted at the polls. Individuals bring in all the documentation they do have (Social Security card, proof of residence, another out-of-state ID) and the state, after verifying their identity and residence, provides a voting credential.

But—as highlighted in Ari Berman’s piece last week in The Nation, and follow-up stories in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel—the state isn’t actually doing that. Nobody in Governor Walker’s state government effectively trained DMV employees about the availability of this credential, so many voters who inquire are denied.

According to recordings acquired by Ms. McGrath after she and her team visited many motor vehicles offices around the state, motor vehicles employees clearly have no idea what people are requesting. Most DMV staff often can’t even find the relevant forms.

Just Friday—based in part on the stories in The Nation and the Journal-Sentinel—the federal judge responsible for monitoring compliance with the Appeals Court’s instructions ordered an investigation into the problem.

This is what voter suppression looks like in 2016: strict voter ID laws, despite the lack of evidence that voter impersonation ever happens, and a state government that cannot—or will not—fulfill the responsibilities it promised to its citizens and the courts.

We’d like to laugh at the circuitous route and the immense amount of effort it takes a state like Wisconsin to deny people their right to vote, except the entire thing is entirely un-democratic and un-American. Wouldn’t it be easier to look wholly at the people who live in your state and work to adopt policies that benefit all of them, so that you in turn win their appreciation and support? Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to look like?

Thankfully, Ms. McGrath, along with her colleague Anita Johnson and the team of VoteRiders volunteers who assist them, have been reaching out to Wisconsin residents who might not have the ID they need to vote this year. They follow-up on calls to the state and national VoteRiders hotline*, attend and plan community events, plan events on college campuses, visit homeless shelters and food shelves—traveling across the state to connect with potential voters who might not have ID, and then providing case-management level assistance to help these individuals get that ID and register to vote.

At Project Vote, we are proud to stand with the VoteRiders team in Wisconsin and to support their work this year. You can bet that we and our allies will be watching this closely to see if there’s an opportunity for further intervention in the courts. Because, if Governor Walker’s state government won’t uphold its end and offer the temporary ID they promised, then the entire law should be dismantled for the unnecessary, unethical, un-American sham that it is.

*If you or someone you know needs assistance with voter ID, please call our toll-free national hotline at 1-844-338-8743.