Wisconsin’s voter ID controversy: what you need to know

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Barry Burden is professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bryce Richter / UW-Madison University

Barry Burden is professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In the summer of 2011 the governor and legislature of Wisconsin enacted Act 23, which created a photo identification requirement for voting. That requirement was in legal limbo until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declined to hear an appeal in early 2015. This set the stage for the ID requirement to be in place for the presidential primary and general elections of 2016.

The Wisconsin law requires a voter to show one of seven forms of government issued IDs to receive a ballot. The list of accepted IDs includes a state driver’s license, U.S. passport, certificate of naturalization, tribal ID, student ID card, military ID card, or separate state ID card issued specifically for voting.

The law is one of the strictest in the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures rates Wisconsin’s law as one of only six “strict photo ID laws.”

In fact, some of the other “strict” states are actually more accommodating. For example, although labeled as a “strict” state, Georgia allows voters to any photo ID issued by the federal government, the state, or any county or municipality in Georgia. In addition, a driver’s license may be used even if it is expired.

But even Georgia’s law is unusual – almost half of the states do not require any documentation to vote.

For many Wisconsin voters the requirement is nonetheless easy to satisfy. But for others it is a severe burden. This burden must be balanced against the state’s need to have an ID requirement. However, there is almost no evidence of voter impersonation, the kind of fraud the ID law is supposed to deter.

The Wisconsin law has been controversial from the outset. Just a few years before Act 23, the previous governor vetoed bills proposing similar voter ID laws.

One issue is the use of student IDs for voting. The law permits voting with an ID from an accredited college or university within the state. However, the card must include the signature of the student, a date of issuance, and an expiration date no more than two years after the date of issuance. In addition, the student must provide separate evidence of enrollment. Many regular university IDs do not meet these standards, requiring students to acquire additional identification.

Experts estimate that about 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin lack one of the accepted forms of ID. People without ID are more likely to be black, Latino, younger, and lower income. These groups also have fewer resources to acquire acceptable IDs. Because of its disproportionate impact on people of color, it has been argued that the law violates the Voting Rights Act.

Access to the special state ID card is another concern. To get an ID for voting, a person must personally appear at an office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In Sauk City, the DMV is only open four days in all of 2016. The next nearest closest DMV location is 20 miles away and is open just two days each week.

In 2016 the focus has been on what actually happens at the DMV. The applicant must bring documents to verify their identity. This usually means an original, certified birth certificate along with some other materials to provide identify, residency, and citizenship. Many people have difficulty acquiring these documents; they might not even exist.

A person who lacks the documents required by the DMV enters something called the “ID petition process.” The DMV is supposed to work on behalf of the individual to verify their identity by acquiring birth certificates or other documents at no cost, lest it become a “poll tax.”

Recordings made by an advocacy group revealed that DMV workers involved in this process were not following protocol and sometimes gave applicants incorrect information. On multiple occasions in the fall of 2016, federal district court judges James Peterson ordered to the state to investigate the implementation problems, expand and improve public education, and track down applicants who were unfairly rejected by the process.

Given the controversy of the law and the errors in its implementation, we should expect continued negotiation among the plaintiffs, advocacy groups, courts, and the state of Wisconsin well after the 2016 election.

Barry Burden is professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published widely on election administration and was an expert witness in two federal lawsuits related to the voter ID requirement in Wisconsin.

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