MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — A few days before millions of Wisconsin voters head to the polls to vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries, Ernest Barksdale and Nefertiti Helem struggled up the steps of Milwaukee’s downtown DMV in the pouring rain, hoping to obtain IDs that comply with the state’s voter ID law.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled overhead as Helem, leaning on a cane and clutching Barksdale’s arm, entered the office soaking wet and panting. She is battling a genetic degenerative disease that makes walking more painful each year, but said she didn’t want it to stop her from participating in the election.
“I feel like it’s my duty. I feel obligated to vote,” she told ThinkProgress after catching her breath. “It feels better to be a part of it all. I want to help get somebody in office who can help everyone out. I want to have a voice and a say in who becomes president.”
The couple, who moved from Chicago in 2013, live in an apartment complex for low-income seniors and people with disabilities on Milwaukee’s north side. Neither can drive. Barksdale has a high school education, while Helem studied through the ninth grade. Before staff members from the local voter education groups VoteRiders and Citizen Action came to their home and gave a presentation about the voter ID law, they did not know that neither their Illinois IDs nor their Social Security cards would be accepted at the polls.
“We didn’t know where to go and how to obtain a Wisconsin ID,” Barksdale told ThinkProgress on the drive to the DMV. “I just knew I couldn’t go all the way back to Chicago to vote, and I wanted to vote in the city I live in.”
Milwaukee native Anita Johnson, who works with VoteRiders and Citizen Action, twisted around from the drivers seat and explained that when she learned Barksdale and Helem needed help, she offered them a ride. She has spent the last few months helping about 100 people like Barksdale and Helem obtain IDs, but says she’s worried confusion around the law could disenfranchise thousands. She and other voting rights advocates point to the example of Texas, where half of the residents who said they didn’t vote in 2014 because they lacked a voter ID actually had an acceptable ID and didn’t know it.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed Wisconsin’s voter ID law in 2011, but it was tied up in court battles until 2015. While some federal judges held that the law unconstitutionally burdens low-income people of color like Helem and Barksdale, the Supreme Court eventually allowed the law to stand. Tuesday will be the first presidential election in the state’s history where a photo ID will be required at the polls.
Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans have asserted that the law is necessary because the state is “riddled” with voter fraud. Yet independent studies have found such fraud to be virtually non-existent in the state. The Brennan Center for Justice found just seven cases of voter fraud out of three million votes cast in Wisconsin during the 2004 election — a rate of 0.0002 percent. When voters challenged the ID law in court, Walker’s lawyers were unable to offer a single instance of known voter impersonation as evidence. After hearing the arguments for and against the law, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman wrote that “no rational person could be worried about” voter fraud, and held that the law presented an unconstitutional “denial or abridgment of the right to vote.”
After filling out a series of forms at Milwaukee’s DMV and posing for a picture, Barksdale was able to obtain a state ID he can use to vote on Tuesday. Helem was not, because she did not have a copy of her birth certificate. Though she presented her Social Security card, proof of residence, and Illinois State ID, the DMV staff said it would take them at least three weeks to find and verify her birth certificate.
Helem, who during the car ride had gushed about her excitement for Hillary Clinton, sunk into a plastic chair after she learned the news. She told ThinkProgress she was “a little upset” and “kind of disappointed.”
“But the law is the law,” she sighed. “I can’t break the law just because I feel like voting. At least I’ll be ready next time.”
Silent airwaves, confused voters
Johnson says she has encountered many people who, like Barksdale and Helem, were confused about or unaware of the voter ID law. More than a dozen states have passed such laws over the last five years, a feat made easier by the Supreme Court striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. This year, 33 total states will have such a law in place. Yet Wisconsin’s law is an outlier in its stringency, accepting a narrower list of acceptable IDs and providing fewer avenues for voters who face barriers to acquiring one.
While other states have spent millions to educate their voters about the new requirements, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature never approved the funds to do so. The Government Accountability Board created PSAs, but have no budget to buy airtime to get them to the public. Nothing in the law compels radio and TV stations — in the middle of a heated election when the cost of airtime is skyrocketing — to air these educational messages.
As Johnson shuttled Barksdale and Helem back home from to the DMV, a stream of constant campaign ads poured out of car radio.
“Bernie Sanders marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.”
“Rebecca Bradley: too extreme for Wisconsin.”
“Ted Cruz: the only candidate who can stop Donald Trump.”
Johnson down the volume and sighed. “Imagine if some of those ads were about which ID people can bring,” she said. “The state should have put something on radio and TV, put signs on buses, put information up in laundromats and libraries, everywhere they could reach people.”
Non-profit groups like VoteRiders, Citizen Action, and the League of Women Voters have been scrambling to fill this information void. For the past several months, Johnson has been giving up to four presentations a week at churches, homeless shelters, food pantries, and high schools, and nearly ever time she finds people like Barksdale and Helem who lack the proper ID and do not know how to obtain it.
In Milwaukee County alone, an estimated 91,000 people lack a proper ID. Experts hired by the state to testify in a lawsuit over the ID law said up to 300,000 eligible voters statewide could be disenfranchised, while voting rights advocates say the true number could be much higher. Because the state will hand out delegates on Tuesday to whichever candidate wins each congressional district, a small number of people disenfranchised by the law could have a major impact on the 2016 race.
Some counties, including Milwaukee, have begun offering free bus rides to the DMV, but many residents who work multiple jobs are not able to take advantage of this service.
Johnson says she’s even more worried about those who live outside the state’s large urban centers. “I am really concerned about people who live in rural areas, where the DMV opens only once a month, and who may not know about the changes to the law,” she said. “We have people working all over the state but there are still some people who are going to fall through the cracks.”
More problems ahead
Johnson says changes recently approved by Gov. Walker could make elections worse in the future. The governor signed a bill that will dissolve the state’s non-partisan Government Accountability Board and replace it with separate Elections and Ethics boards made up of partisan members appointed by the governor. The same legislative package also hampers the agency’s ability to investigate political corruption — a move widely seen as retaliation for their investigation into whether Walker illegally coordinated with outside groups during his recall election.
Johnson and other voting rights advocates are also sounding the alarm about a bill the governor signed this month giving residents the option to register to vote online, but abolishing a program that trained community groups to conduct voter registration drives.
“Right now, I can just register anybody,” Johnson explained. “When I go to churches to speak, for example, I can register people to vote. I won’t be able to do that anymore, unless I can carry around a computer and a copy machine, since they want an ID and proof of residence attached when you register.”
While voting rights groups are praising the implementation of online voter registration, they note that many of the state’s residents who live in poverty have no access to the internet.