Politics

State Employees Are Having A Hard Time Explaining Scott Walker’s New Voting Restrictions

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Voting rights advocate Anita Johnson gathers Milwaukee residents together to learn the ins and outs of the state's voter ID law.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — When Hillary Clinton issued a sweeping call for expanding and protecting voting rights, and called out Wisconsin and other states for passing discriminatory laws, Governor Scott Walker responded by blasting her views as “extreme” and “far outside the mainstream.” He defended his own record of cutting early voting days and implementing a strict voter ID law, saying these changes “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

But at a workshop held in Milwaukee in early June, state government employees struggled to explain the byzantine voting restrictions to a crowd of poll workers and community activists.

Under Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which was blocked by courts until this March, you can vote with an expired military ID, but naturalization papers and student IDs must be current. Students must bring additional proof of enrollment, such as a class schedule. All Wisconsin residents can obtain a free state ID from any DMV, but only if they have no drivers license from any state. For 18-year-olds registering to vote for the first time, a public high school ID counts, but a private one doesn’t. A bank statement can serve as proof of residence, but not a credit card statement.

“There are so many twists and turns. I hate it,” local organizer Denise Brown told ThinkProgress. “The people who passed these laws benefit from sowing confusion. They want people to get discouraged and stay home.”

Brown, who has volunteered for years registering voters in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs, said the provisions of the law seem to privilege some sectors of the population over others.

“Many lower-wage workers are not banked, and they’re counting on that,” Brown continued, referring to people who do not have any bank account. “Those people tend to vote more progressive, so they’re trying to eliminate them. It’s just wrong.”

Others at the workshop expressed concern about the state’s oldest voters, who no longer drive and may not have proper identifying documents.

“My grandmother was born in the South and not in a hospital,” asked one participant. “What should she do?”

Meagan Wolfe, who works for the Government Accountability Board (GAB) in Madison, answered that many elderly voters can vote absentee by registering as “indefinitely confined,” and thus don’t need a birth certificate or photo ID. She added that residents without birth certificates should bring any documents they have to the DMV, which has a special team on hand to investigate such cases. She listed marriage certificates, the death certificate of a relative, baptism papers and the birth certificate of the voter’s child as possible options.

“How does your child’s birth certificate prove when you were born?” asked one participant.

“What if someone with those other documents goes to the DMV a few weeks before the election?” asked another.

“They’re screwed,” grumbled a third.

As frustration in the room mounted, Wolfe and her colleagues repeatedly reminded residents that they were not responsible for creating the law, only implementing it. And they’ve have had to get the word out with almost no resources.

Governor Scott Walker’s budget, which must pass in the next few weeks, includes almost no money for the GAB to educate voters about the new requirements, though it includes some funds for training local election officials. Though the agency did not know whether the voter ID law would be in place when they made their budget request, they later estimated it would cost about $500,000 to inform the state’s millions of voters about the law. The state plans to give them a tiny fraction of that amount.

“We actually made a great ad campaign. We have catchy videos in English and Spanish. But we weren’t given any money to air them,” Wolfe told ThinkProgress. “Our request for additional funding was denied.”

Due to the lack of funds, Wolfe said she could only give public workshops if communities self-organize and request one, as they did in Milwaukee. She also implored the attendees to widely share the PSAs they can’t afford to get on the radio or TV.

Former poll worker and local activist Solana Patterson-Ramos, who attended the event said she’s worried this approach will leave the vast majority of the state in the dark.

“It’s a law that will really disenfranchise if we’re not informed,” she said. “We already have a low voter turnout and this is going to harm it even more.”

While some voting rights advocates are focusing on education, others are turning to litigation. On June 1, Hillary Clinton’s top campaign lawyer joined with local civil rights groups in suing Wisconsin in federal court for the voting restrictions Governor Walker has signed into law over the past five years — including additional voter registration requirements, a rollback of early voting days, the allowance of “intrusive and intimidating” election monitoring, and the voter ID law.

One of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit is Anita Johnson with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, who said the effort was part of her group’s mission to “help people fight for justice.”

“This law was meant to disenfranchise people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, people without transportation,” she said. “It appears the people who put this law in place want to stay in power, and the only way they can stay in power is to make sure that only their people get to the polls.”

Speaking with ThinkProgress just before the voter ID workshop, Johnson expressed concern for voters in districts where getting an ID is even more difficult than in Milwaukee. In more than half of the state’s counties, the DMVs are only open two days a week and offer no after-work hours. And for the estimated hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who lack an ID, getting to those DMVs may be challenging in areas without reliable public transportation.

“This law is going to stop a lot of people from voting. They’re going to say, ‘I don’t feel like going through all of that,'” she predicted.

But for those willing to jump through the hoops, Johnson says Citizen Action will try to answer their questions, spread the word about the rules, and help those struggling to acquire the proper documents to make sure no one is disenfranchised in 2016.

“We are going to do everything in our power to make sure people go to the polls and vote,” she said. “Education is key. That’s why we started this crusade early, when there is no election on the horizon.”

UPDATE JUN 9, 2015 2:36 PM

This post has been updated with additional information from the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

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