The state’s low-profile effort to educate voters about Wisconsin’s new voter ID requirement has critics fearing some voters will be caught off-guard when they head to the polls.
The voter ID requirement takes effect this year, starting with the spring primary election on Feb. 16 and followed by the spring election and presidential primary on April 5. The voter ID law was enacted in 2011 and briefly took effect for the 2012 spring primary election until court challenges halted its implementation.
Wisconsin’s voter ID requirement is among the most restrictive of any state. Voters must come to the polls with one of a list of approved photo IDs that include their signature, such as a Wisconsin driver’s license, U.S. passport or U.S. military ID. Some student and tribal IDs qualify if they’re not expired. Student IDs also must be accompanied by a separate document that proves enrollment, such as a tuition statement.
The state elections board has created a website, bringit.wisconsin.gov, to inform the public about voter ID. It also has crafted public service announcements that TV and radio stations may run, and has a staffer conducting voter ID presentations to advocacy groups that work with voters.
But the state elections board, the Government Accountability Board, has no funds available for advertising about the new requirement, according to its spokesman, Reid Magney.
Larry Dupuis is legal director of ACLU of Wisconsin, one of the groups that has challenged the voter ID law in court. Now that it’s clear the law will go into effect, Dupuis said he and other groups fear too many voters will be uninformed when they head to the polls.
“We are worried that there’s not a sufficiently robust effort at public education because there’s not the money for it,” Dupuis said.
Other states that implemented voter ID in recent years launched paid media campaigns to educate voters. Pennsylvania spent $5 million on an ad campaign, Alabama ran print ads and Mississippi won advertising awards for its voter ID spots. Wendy Underhill, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Kansas ran billboards with the slogan: “Got Voter ID?”
Andrea Kaminski is director of League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, another group that has challenged the voter ID law in court. Kaminski said lawmakers should act quickly, before the close of the 2015-2016 legislative session, to set aside funds for voter ID ads on radio and TV.
“If our lawmakers want people to vote — and they should — then they should be willing to budget money to help people do that,” Kaminski said.
The offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Senate President Mary Lazich, as well as the leaders of the Assembly and Senate elections committees — Rep. Kathy Bernier and Sen. Devin LeMahieu — didn’t respond to inquiries this week about the matter.
For now, Magney said the board’s educational strategy on voter ID revolves around the website, the PSAs and “earned media” — or persuading journalists to report on it. The board plans a Monday press conference to call attention to voter ID.
The GAB could not have asked lawmakers to fund voter ID education in its funding request for the current state budget. Magney said that’s because, at the time state agencies filed their budget requests in late 2014, the voter ID requirement still was on hold due to a court order.
That changed in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a legal challenge to the law, allowing for it to start being enforced.
League of Women Voters of Wisconsin is doing what it can to educate the public, Kaminski said. The league’s 18 local chapters throughout the state are holding events and dropping literature at public libraries, high schools and seniors centers, and the organization has added a staff member to focus on voter ID education.
But Kaminski said her organization can only do so much.
“I’m sure that some people will be surprised on Election Day,” she said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published to note that the Government Accountability Board is providing TV stations with public service announcements about voter ID, in addition to audio announcements to radio stations.]