A coalition of Madison and Dane County officials and non-profit organizations are teaming up to make sure voters aren’t tripped up by new regulations when they head to the polls for the April 5 primary and beyond.
“We’re gearing up for April,” Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said. “We’re really focused on November as well. I think there will be more voters who are not aware of the law, and this is part of an overall strategy to educate them in advance.”
At a press conference Wednesday at the state Capitol, McDonell said the county is working with groups like the voting rights group VoteRiders, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP to form the Dane County Voter ID Coalition. The coalition will provide rides to get people to the state Department of Motor Vehicles for identification cards or driver’s licenses and mount educational efforts. Voters wanting assistance can call a helpline at 608-729-7720.
Wisconsin’s voter ID law, enacted in 2011 by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, previously had only been in effect for the 2012 spring primary, after which it was held up by court challenges. This year marks the first full election cycle that photo IDs will be mandatory for voters.
But according to the most recent Marquette University Law School poll, 10 percent of registered voters still don’t think they need a photo ID to vote. Another 6 percent are unsure.
"Of those who do know that a photo ID is required, they’re still showing up with the wrong kinds of IDs,” said Molly McGrath of VoteRiders, a voting rights group. “Things like a Minnesota driver’s license, a VA card, a non-qualifying student ID.”
And UW-Madison research in 2011 by political science professor Ken Meyer estimated that some 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters don’t have the necessary identification to vote.
McDonell said several issues concerning the voter ID law, like uncertainty over what kinds of identification are necessary, threaten to confound a lot of voters.
“There’s a lot of confusion out there,” he said.
In response to what’s been widely criticized as an inadequate state effort to educate voters about the new law, McDonell said Dane County has allocated $40,000 to spend on voter outreach, the only Wisconsin municipality to fund such an effort.
The obstacles to obtaining proper voting identification are varied. For instance, Steve Pacewicz, who’s currently homeless and earns money as a snow plow driver when the weather allows, had lost his driver’s license card. He found that he couldn’t get a free state ID because the state won’t allow both a state ID and a driver’s license. And he didn’t have the $14 to have a duplicate of his license made.
But then he heard about VoteRiders, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring people’s right to vote, and they paid the fee so he could vote in the Feb. 16 primary.
“I don’t always vote in elections,” he said. “But the ones that have been coming up recently touch my heart. I need to get my voice out there.”
McGrath said Pacewicz’s predicament is not uncommon.
“There’s a lot of people in that position where they’re just probably not going to vote,” she said. “They don’t know there’s assistance available.”
At the press conference, city and county officials, activists and organizers gathered to announce the concerted effort to get people registered and equipped to vote.
Speakers Wednesday painted the law as a blatant attempt to obstruct voters.
Greg Jones, president of the Dane County NAACP, called the law “unnecessary, unsupported and politically motivated” and said it amounts a rollback of the civil rights era Voting Rights Act.
“It is a means to suppress voter participation and exclude many from their citizenship,” he said. “This is not a partisan issue, it’s an American issue.”
He pointed to the recent passage of laws including limits to absentee voting, the elimination of early weekend voting and a bill allowing election observers to positions themselves within a few feet from voters, which some fear could lead to voter harassment, as further examples of voter suppression measures.
“Voter ID is a burden on minorities, the elderly and low-income Americans who do not drive,” he said.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin evoked the experience of a 90-year-old Wisconsin World War II vet — the uncle of state Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley — who was turned away from the polls during last month’s primary because all he had was a veteran’s ID card.
“Now, 75 years later, we find ourselves engaged in a battle with forces that wish to return to the days when we fought the Nazis and the fascists,” he said. “And they want to take away the right for the veterans of that war to vote.”
Ingrid Rothe, vice-president of the League of Women Voters of Dane County and co-chair of the Voter ID Coalition, said the national consensus that American democracy depends on full enfranchisement no longer holds sway.
“It’s now public policy to randomly or not-so-randomly exclude some otherwise eligible people from voting,” she said. “There’s a cure for this problem: It’s called voting.”
She urged people unsure of whether they have proper documentation to seek advice from friends, family or neighbors, or call the Voter ID coalition for advice.
McGrath said the experience in other voter ID states should serve as a warning to Wisconsin.
“We’re already hearing reports from Texas, likely soon from Alabama and Virginia and other states with voter ID laws about voters who showed up without the right ID to vote,” said McGrath. “Now, ahead of Wisconsin’s election on April 5, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that that does not happen here.”
According to Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, 98 city voters in the low-turnout primary presented IDs that didn’t meet state standards. Some subsequently retrieved proper identification and 28 cast provisional ballots. But 28 others left without casting a ballot at all.
In addition, she said, 47 voters came to polling places expecting to register and then vote, but didn’t have the necessary documentation for registration.
Witzel-Behl said there are 300 volunteers working with her office as voter education ambassadors who will be at food pantries, community events and at Madison public libraries on March 12 for a special voter ID and registration effort.
“So for the next several weeks we’re going to be throughout the community focusing on getting people registered to vote,” she said, “and helping them make sure they have an ID that’s going to be accepted at the polls.”
David Fisher, a Walgreens clerk, pointed out that despite the fact that state IDs are available at no cost, if you want to retain your driver’s license, low-income earners like him have to bite the financial bullet.
Fisher, who pulls in about $15,000 a year, had a Minnesota driver’s license. He had to shell out $34 for a Wisconsin license, plus $25 for a copy of his birth certificate.
That’s a significant chunk of change, he said, when “I’m still measuring my monthly budget in hundreds.”