MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — As many as 300,000 people could be disenfranchised on Tuesday by Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which will be in effect for the first time in a presidential election in the state’s history.
Dennis Hatten was almost one of them.
Thanks to an error on his birth certificate, the formerly homeless Marine Corps veteran spent months working with the voting rights groups Citizen Action and Vote Riders, finally obtaining a state ID just in time to vote.
Born in Dumas, Arkansas in the early 1960s, Hatten told ThinkProgress he heard his uncle, who couldn’t read or write, complaining that “white folks wouldn’t let him vote.” He later learned that many members of his family were disenfranchised by Jim Crow voting laws.
When Wisconsin refused at first to issue him an ID, those childhood memories came flooding back. “I thought, is this sort of a poll tax type of thing?” he told ThinkProgress. “Are they trying to stop us from voting? But I tried to look past that and went ahead and did what I had to do.”
Are they trying to stop us from voting?
A federal circuit court also held, in 2014, that the law constituted a “poll tax.” While residents technically have the right to a free ID, many have had to pay steep costs to obtain one: transportation to government offices, time off work, and payment for the underlying documents needed to qualify for that ID. Judge Posner said these costs could range from $75 to $175, and noted that these were “substantially greater costs than the $1.50 poll tax outlawed by the 24th amendment” when Hatten was still an infant.
Hatten joined the Marine Corps in the early 1980s, and served several years at bases in San Diego and San Onofre. But he had to leave before he could retire with benefits, first to care for his ailing mother, then his father, then his grandmother. After losing his family members to cancer and losing his job, he developed a mental illness and became addicted to drugs. He sought out recovery and therapy programs for veterans in Illinois and in Milwaukee.
He was living in Milwaukee’s Vets Place Center shelter when the local voting rights groups VoteRiders and Citizen Action came to give a presentation about Wisconsin voter ID law in December. When he went up to the organizers and told them he didn’t have his birth certificate, he embarked on a months-long saga that involved countless phone calls, assistance from volunteer lawyers, and trips to the DMV. If he had children, he said, or multiple jobs, he may have given up.
“They told me they didn’t have any record of me,” he told ThinkProgress. “It seemed to me like some of the veiled racist systems from the past are still in place. They have stuff in place to make you lose your motivation.”
When the birth certificate was finally located, he learned that instead of the name he had used his whole life, it had the name Dene’t. The Cajun Creole midwife who delivered him had mistakenly written down that name on the form, and it remained in his government records for more than 50 years.
Months later, the DMV located Hatten’s first application for a Social Security card, on which he listed both Dennis and Dene’t as his legal names, proving his identity. With the presidential primary just around the corner, they finally issued him a state ID, and a new copy of his birth certificate is on the way.
Earlier this month, after all Hatten went through, the state legislature abruptly amended the state’s voter ID law so that ID cards from the Veterans Health Administration will be accepted at the polls. Had this been true from the law’s inception, Hatten could have used the VA card he had all along.
But now, having navigated the system himself, Hatten says he hopes to help other low-income residents in Milwaukee do the same. “You’ve got to vote,” he told ThinkProgress. “It impacts your life in more ways than one.”