DMVs voter ID (copy)

Employees help customers at the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles Madison East office in 2014. DMV offices are tasked with issuing voter ID cards for free to voters who need them.

A federal judge said Wednesday the state of Wisconsin has fallen short on its court-ordered obligations to inform voters lacking necessary documents how to obtain a photo ID, but signaled it is unlikely he will suspend the state's voter ID law for the November election. 

"I think it's utterly unsurprising that the problems that arose would arise if it weren't for some diligence, which belatedly the DMV has brought to bear. Whether it’s completely successful, I still have my doubts," U.S. District Judge James Peterson said in a hearing, referencing new efforts from the Division of Motor Vehicles to better train its workers on the process.

The state is asking Peterson to deny a request filed earlier this month by the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute to either suspend the state's voter ID law for the November election or put in place remedial measures to address issues with the ID petition process (IDPP), which is designed to help people who don't have the proper documentation obtain IDs.

Their request came after media reports based on recordings from the advocacy group VoteRiders indicated DMV workers gave inaccurate information to people seeking IDs.

"The DMV has a lot of competencies. One of them is not communicating to voters what they need to get an ID," Peterson said, adding he doesn't understand why these issues are emerging one month before the election.

The training provided to DMV workers on the ID process has been "manifestly inadequate," he said. 

Still, he added, he's not sure he has the authority to block the law at this stage. 

Attorneys for the state argued it would be harmful to make any changes to voting laws since early voting is already underway. 

In a July decision in this case, Peterson overturned laws that limited in-person absentee voting to one location. The judge also struck down laws that limited early voting hours and eliminated weekend voting, increased the residency requirement for voters from 10 days to 28 days, prohibited distributing absentee ballots by fax or email and required "dorm lists" used as proof of residence to include citizenship information, and a provision of the voter ID law banning the use of expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs at the polls.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs countered one way to address the fact that early voting has begun would be to require any provisional ballots cast without IDs to be counted unless the state could prove they were cast by ineligible voters, shifting the burden from the voter to the state.

The state argued the interactions detailed in media reports were mostly hypothetical conversations, with questions designed to "trip up" DMV workers. They argued that the actual voters whose interactions were recorded have all received IDs.

But without those recordings, the judge said, the state wouldn't have implemented the additional efforts it recently put in place to address concerns with the IDPP.

"The state is willing to take minimal efforts unless it’s compelled to do so by this litigation," Peterson said.

Asked what she thought contributed to the inaccurate information in the recordings she released, VoteRiders national campaign coordinator Molly McGrath said, "I think it was maybe a training issue, maybe a priority issue, maybe a too little too late issue, but i think there’s a lot of issues happening."

In a court-ordered report filed last week, Attorney General Brad Schimel said state officials are doing enough to address concerns with the way voter identification credentials are issued to those who need them.

"Through a swift and comprehensive investigation, DMV identified how best to address these communication concerns, and the agency has now implemented top-to-bottom corrective measures," Schimel wrote.

Measures being taken by the DMV include requiring additional training on the IDPP for field staff, updating language in application materials and "making clear through agency-wide communications that the proper functioning of the IDPP is a priority."

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.