Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO

August 23, 2014

In The News

Some in media further confuse voters as 2011 elections loom

By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted June 19, 2011


He was laughing and off the record a few months ago when I asked a Republican legislator what in heaven’s name was the purpose of the voter ID bill that is now Wisconsin law. “It’s just to confuse the public,” he chuckled, and turns out he was being honest.

Most of the required changes don’t take place until the 2012 elections (do you think maybe the real target is supporters of Barack Obama?), and the newspaper pundits have already spent a lot of time discussing whether calling this law “disenfranchisement” of voters wasn’t an overuse of an overused word. They don’t spend time exploring the real constitutional issue that will be raised in the courts of “voter suppression,” the forcing unnecessary hurdles on the elderly, poor, disabled, transients and students (for a basic democratic right) in a state where hundreds of thousands don’t have driver’s licenses and the DMV doesn’t have regular hours everywhere or even presence in some counties. That is the dissembling that will clearly face court challenges and could affect the law in 2012.

But some little changes creating large confusion are taking place in time for the 2011 recall elections -- and many newspapers and radio/TV stations, in trying to shorthand the clear explanation to election professionals from the Government Accountability Board, have muddied the matter even further.

So let’s simplify for 2011. Here are the changes at the polls to look out for:

Everyone who enters to vote must sign a logbook, or poll list – and that is new.

No longer can you bring a corroborating witness to prove your identify.

You must prove an established residency of 28 consecutive days, not the current 10. (One change is not at the polls: In-person absentee balloting at election commission locations is shorter and ends the Friday before an election.)

And here are the 2011 changes that are causing confusion in news stories.

You will be asked to show a photo ID, but you don’t need to have one or show one and frankly, if you are ticked off by this whole thing, you don’t have to pull a photo ID out even if you are carrying it.

Here’s what’s not always being made clear. If you say No, you will be handed a piece of information about how you have to show a photo ID next year (this is just a training exercise, expected to be carried out at every polling place). And then you can proceed to vote AS YOU HAVE IN THE PAST (with the above noted exceptions).

In other word, registered voters or those with older acceptable forms of ID can this year proceed as before after signing a log. The confusion in news reports came by juxtaposing the training exercise with the need for a provisional ballot to vote when you don’t have an ID, and how you must return in a few days with an ID before your vote will count. Too many stories or TV reports have linked that 2012 provisional ballot requirement with the 2011 “show us a photo ID” request, though they don’t relate.

GAB counsel told Labor Press, “The confusing part is that, in 2011 elections, there may still be provisional ballots cast, as there are under existing law, in limited circumstances.” Those rare circumstances are first time voters who registered by mail without proof of residence or voters on Election Day who may not have their driver license number.

There are always wrinkles in election legislation-- but the bottom line, for 2011, is the failure to have a photo ID does not trigger the need for a provisional ballot.

All this started some interesting arguments among election-knowledgeable citizens over whether some newspapers were just careless in reporting a confusing change or were deliberate in adding to the confusion. I would like to vote for careless, given past practices. But if it was easy for me to check before writing, why not them?

Few newspapers are also exploring the looming grounds for constitutional attack on the law (though big legal guns tell me they may focus court cases on the photo ID required in 2012, not the current minor muddles).

Now, in simple terms, let’s explore why the new voter bill could run afoul of voter suppression rulings.

In Indiana, where a similar bill was declared legal and served as a model for this one, surveys indicated a far more concentrated public and far fewer voters without photo IDs -- and that state took early steps to extend hours, services and availability to issue photo IDs. Wisconsin has done no such thing.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) warned her colleagues that not all far-flung counties even have DMV service centers: Buffalo County has none, Pierce County has only open during typical working hours on Thursdays and Fridays and Price County only has hours on the first Wednesday of every other month and 2nd and 5th Thursdays monthly, she noted as examples. Moreover, cuts in state service have restricted hours at many existing DMVs.

The situation hurts people of all economic and racial stripes. It may actually impact voters Republicans have long relied on, since many older citizens loaded with credit cards and money have stopped getting driver’s license and don’t realize how this law affects them, one legislator told Labor Press.

Something old and not so smart is married to the photo ID bill. To be in accordance with the Real ID Act of 2005, a law forced through Congress by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner when fear of terrorism outweighed obvious great costs to state budgets, citizens will have to provide a birth certificate to the Department of Motor Vehicles before obtaining a federal, tamper-proof driver’s license or ID.

“People who have come here from Arkansas and Mississippi may not have a birth certificate, especially if they’re elderly,” Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) told his colleagues. He didn’t even discuss how back then black births were recorded differently, casually or not at all in the segregated South. “To get one from those states could take extra time and money.”

The bill will also cost the state more than $6 million over the next biennium, by its own count, due to providing free state IDs to avoid the appearance that the bill is an unconstitutional poll tax. But no money has been set aside for fuller compliance with such issues as access and education, and lawsuits will also address the now obvious attempt in so many identification and residency rules of making life difficult for Democrat-tending classes of voters.

Another state senator, Lena Taylor, sees a similar inequity in the new requirement forcing all voters to sign a poll list. It smacks of an unnecessary extra step to chill and embarrass since there is no evidence of in-person voting fraud. The law would also eliminate party-line voting for all residents, with the exception of military personnel and overseas voters – and that may produce hardship and confusion for all voters accustomed to signing in one spot on a ballot rather than voting in each race.

Foremost among the voter suppression complaints is growing evidence of the predominant targets and enormous number of Wisconsin voters without any photo IDs, unlike some early data that allowed Indiana to slip its law through court scrutiny.

A recent UWM study of those without photo IDs found 23% of Wisconsinites over the age of 65, 17% of white men and women, 55% of African American males and 49% of African American women, 46% of Hispanic men and 59% of Hispanic women, 78% of African American males age 18-24 and 66% of African American women age 18-24

Statistical reports probably underestimate the real totals but show that 175,000 state residents currently do not have driver licenses – and face a DMV operation unprepared to help.

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