Our story about a state Department of Transportation memo that instructs staff not to tell the public about the availability of free identification cards for voting unless customers ask for them, has been met by outrage from Democratic legislators and advocates who say the memo is proof of what they have been saying all along: that the state's new voter identification law, backed by the GOP, is nothing more than a modern day poll tax or, as Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, once put it, a "vaccine" to protect Republicans against defeat during what are sure to be close elections.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, fired off a letter Wednesday to Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb calling the policy "unacceptable and paramount to a bait and switch tactic."
Meanwhile, the progressive advocacy group One Wisconsin Now filed an open records request with the DOT asking for documents related to the memo, which a Wednesday press release calls a "smoking gun."
Says executive Scot Ross in an interview: "This is proof that they are actively trying to prevent people from knowing that those free IDs are available. They are denying legal voters the right to vote because Governor Walker wants as few people to turn out as possible."
The DOT memo written by Steve Krieser, who was recently promoted to executive assistant to the DOT secretary, tells staff at local Division of Motor Vehicle offices how to implement the controversial new Voter Photo ID law. Its supporters had promised that photo identification cards, normally $28, would be made available free of charge to voters who lacked other acceptable documentation like driver's licenses.
But the July 1 memo to DMV staff adds a caveat. "While you should certainly help customers who come in asking for a free ID to check the appropriate box, you should refrain from offering the free version to customers who do not ask for it," Krieser writes.
In his letter, Erpenbach makes a pointed reference to the political backgrounds of some top DOT brass, which quite possibly refers to Krieser. He is a former aide to former state senator Tom Reynolds, the conservative who unseated fellow Republican Peggy Rosenzweig in 2002 by calling her stances on gun control and abortion too liberal. DOT Secretary Gottlieb himself was elected to the Assembly in 2002, serving in various Republican leadership positions until Walker offered him the DOT post last winter.
As the fuss over the memos grew Wednesday, the DMV posted signs telling people they could get IDs for free if they were intended for voting, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Officials said the signs were planned for some time and were not a response to news stories about the policy.
Republican supporters of the law say it is needed to prevent voter fraud and said Tuesday that it was not intended to make all state-issued ID cards other than driver's licenses free to customers.
But critics say there is no proof that such fraud has ever been a significant problem in Wisconsin, that implementing the law is costing the state millions of dollars, and that it is really aimed at restricting turnout of groups which tend to vote Democratic.
The fight has gained nationwide attention, and despite the passage of the law, further challenges are likely forthcoming.
Last month, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin announced it planned to file a lawsuit against the law, and the Wisconsin Bar Association's civil rights unit has asked the U.S. Justice Department to review it.
In a story last week, Rolling Stone portrayed Wisconsin's voter ID law as one of the most stringent examples of a coordinated campaign backed by the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the GOP to restrict voting in dozens of states. Salon did a piece on the national push by the GOP for voter ID laws in late July.
Significant numbers of voters will be affected by the law. A 2005 University of Wisconsin study cited by the Wisconsin Bar Association found that in the Milwaukee area 59 percent of Latina women and 55 percent of black men lacked valid state identification. The Rolling Stone article reports that none of the college IDs currently used by the state's 240,000 or so students would meet the law's criteria.
These numbers are especially significant given the slim margins of victory in some recent elections in Wisconsin. Kathleen Falk lost the attorney general's race in 2006 to J.B. Van Hollen and both Al Gore and John Kerry won the presidential vote in Wisconsin in 2000 and 2004 respectively by fewer than 10,000 votes, or less than 1 percent. More rRecently, incumbent Justice David Prosser beat JoAnne Kloppenburg in a hotly contested Supreme Court race by just 7004 votes.