VOTING-FEB-14-02162016160904 (copy)

The election officials help a student to register to vote on campus Tuesday.

People who die waiting for a state-issued voter ID are recorded as a "customer-initiated cancellation" by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, a DMV official testified Thursday.

On the fourth day of a trial challenging a series of voting changes implemented in Wisconsin since 2011, U.S. District Judge James Peterson heard testimony from a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and Sun Prairie's city clerk. But lawyers focused on Susan Schilz, a supervisor in the DMV's compliance, audit and fraud unit, who was questioned for several hours.

Schilz's unit oversees the ID petition process, or IDPP — the system qualified voters use to obtain a free ID from the state.

The lawsuit, filed about a year ago, argues the IDPP is ineffective and is failing minority groups in particular.

Attorneys challenging the laws say the measures were passed with the intention of disproportionately burdening non-white voters, young voters and poor voters.

Lawyers for the state have noted the increased turnout in elections that have occurred since the state's voter ID law was passed in 2011 and emphasized that the DMV provides free IDs to those who need them.

Lawyer Josh Kaul called the IDPP "almost cartoonishly unconstitutional" on Monday, noting that the majority of IDPP applications that have been denied have been for non-white applicants.

But Assistant Attorney General Clay Kawski said those denials pale in comparison to the number of free IDs that have been issued.

According to the state, 420,000 free state ID cards have been issued since July 2011, 127,000 of which were new IDs, while 1,389 IDPP petitions were filed.

But 70 percent of the would-be voters who have gone through the IDPP process are non-white, Kaul said. And of 61 denials issued, he said, 81 percent of those who were denied were non-white. 

Asked about some of those statistics on Thursday, Schilz stressed that neither she nor her employees take note of the race or photos included in the applications they review.

"We’re investigators, and we try to get to yes, whether it’s issuing a voter ID or solving a fraud case," Schilz said. "That’s how we’re wired."

Starting in February 2016, the number of denials issued by Schilz's unit hit a sharp uptick. 

That's because, Schilz said, she learned there were a large number of applications in "suspended" status for more than 180 days — the longest they are supposed to be considered suspended. After 180 days, cases are to be forwarded to supervisors to either be revisited or denied. 

Two black women whose applications sat in "suspended" status for 180 days, both born in Jim Crow-era Mississippi and both longtime Milwaukee residents, died before resolution was reached.

An investigator recommended they be listed as "denials" with no letters sent, but DMV administrator Kristina Boardman directed they be listed as "customer-initiated cancellations," Schilz testified.

Last week, Gov. Scott Walker approved an emergency rule that would allow people who have a hard time getting a photo ID to vote with a receipt from the DMV. The rule took effect May 13.

Under the emergency rule, the DMV will issue receipts to would-be voters who are in the process of obtaining a photo ID but aren't able to provide the necessary documents in time for an election. Voters will be able to cast ballots with those temporary receipts.

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The receipts are valid for 60 days and can be renewed.

The DMV sent 146 of those receipts on May 13, the day the rule was implemented, Schilz said. 

She said her department "knew ahead of time" it was "something the governor's office was discussing."

"We worked collaboratively to make it easier to vote in Wisconsin," said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson in an email when asked about the impetus for the rule and where the process began.

Some would-be voters' circumstances are more challenging than others, Schilz said. Conflicting birthdates on legal documents can be difficult to reconcile. And people born in some states, like South Carolina and Mississippi, can face hurdles obtaining records like birth certificates, she said.

"That’s the saddest part of this whole process," Schilz said when asked about an applicant who can't reconcile his birthdate. "Because there is a percentage of people who, they’ve went this far in their life and they’ve never been able to prove their identity. I don’t know what the answer is to that."

Also on Thursday, a group of 34 Republican lawmakers asked the Legislature's budget committee to consider funding an educational campaign for the state's voter ID requirement.

Chris Borgerding, a spokesman for Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the committee currently has no plans for a meeting but could look for a date in the future.

The lawsuit challenges not only the voter ID provision, but several other changes to voting practices including restrictions on early voting and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

Plaintiffs include One Wisconsin Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and six individuals. Arguments are expected to last nine days.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.