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As the Nov. 6 election nears, a voting rights campaign is ramping up efforts to help voters comply with Wisconsin’s requirement to show a photo ID at the polls.

The campaign has enlisted at least 500 volunteers for its efforts, which include door-to-door canvassing to speak directly to voters about the requirement. At least 10,000 residences have been canvassed so far, with more scheduled, in cities including Madison, Milwaukee, Beloit, Racine and Kenosha.

The campaign also is posting ads online and on billboards and public buses, according to the campaign’s organizer, Molly McGrath. And it has created a hotline and website to share details of how to meet the ID requirement.

Wisconsin’s controversial photo ID requirement is among the strictest of any state. McGrath said volunteers for the campaign, All Voting Is Local, is hearing from many voters who either lack a qualifying ID to vote or — at least as often — don’t know if the ID they have meets the requirement.

“We’re seeing a lot of voters who want help,” McGrath said. “The idea is really to go where impacted voters are and bridge that information gap.”

McGrath said the campaign is targeting its door-to-door efforts based on voter turnout from the 2016 election, focused on wards that saw the greatest downturn from 2012 to 2016. Most of the neighborhoods are low-income and home predominantly to people of color.

In Madison, those neighborhoods are on the city’s South and North sides, she said. The group also has canvassed extensively on Milwaukee’s north side.

McGrath — an ACLU attorney and organizer, and a vocal critic of the ID requirement — said the campaign is the kind that the state should have had after implementing the photo ID voting requirement. Enacted in 2011, it was largely on hold due to court rulings until taking effect for the 2016 elections.

The state Elections Commission did some outreach efforts in 2016, including advertising and a still-active website explaining how to comply with the requirement. A federal judge ordered the state to better publicize its process for people who face hardships meeting the requirement to get a temporary credential allowing them to vote.

In the lead-up to this election, the state continues doing outreach via social media and news coverage via the commission and the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles, which provides free IDs to people who lack an ID to meet the requirement.

But McGrath said the state’s outreach efforts have failed to address calls for a robust effort that proactively reaches out to voters.

“So,” McGrath said, “we’re going to do that ourselves.”

‘Reaching people directly’

All Voting Is Local is a collaboration of groups including the ACLU, the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights, Campaign Legal Center, American Constitution Society and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Dane County also contributed $45,000 to the campaign to help fund outreach efforts within the county.

McGrath is a veteran of Wisconsin’s voter ID battle, having worked during the 2016 cycle with the national voting-rights organization VoteRiders.

Julia Gilden, a Madison volunteer for All Voting Is Local, has helped lead its Dane County canvassing campaign, including by recruiting and training volunteers.

“This is an effort that I know is reaching people directly,” Gilden said. “It’s reaching people who might not be reached any other way.”

The canvassing efforts have turned up problems that generally fall into three categories, Gilden said:

  • Voters who correctly acknowledge they lack a qualifying ID.
  • Voters who have an ID that doesn’t qualify, but mistakenly think it does.
  • Voters who have an ID that qualifies, but mistakenly think it does not.

Gilden shared the example of a voter she recently assisted while canvassing a neighborhood on Madison’s North Side.

The voter, a woman in her 90s, told canvassers she was prepared to vote. But closer inspection of her ID showed it expired in 2006, meaning it would not meet the state’s requirement. The law permits use of some expired IDs including Wisconsin drivers licenses, military IDs, U.S. passports and student photo IDs — but only those that expired after the 2016 election.

“She’s a person who could’ve gone to the polls and been turned away,” Gilden said.

Unclear how many voters deterred

It is not known how many eligible voters in 2016 did not vote because of the ID requirement.

A UW-Madison study released last year by political science professor Ken Mayer estimated that in Dane and Milwaukee counties alone, about 11.2 percent of eligible registered voters who did not vote in 2016 may have been deterred by the ID requirement.

The law has been a lightning rod because of its perceived political implications. Democrats have slammed the requirement, enacted in 2011 by Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers, as a tool to deter voters who tend to vote Democratic.

Earlier this year, Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel suggested President Donald Trump wouldn’t have won Wisconsin and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson wouldn’t have won re-election in 2016 without the state’s voter ID law.

Republicans have argued the voter ID law deters voter fraud, though there is no evidence the type of fraud deterred occurs on a large scale.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, a Democrat, said “anecdotally we know there’s so much confusion” from voters about how to comply with the law.

McDonell also said he thinks public outreach and education on the ID requirement may be needed on an ongoing basis.

“This is going to be a new normal of education,” McDonell said.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.