Wis-communication: Trouble in the Badger State

Despite a July 2016 ruling from a federal District Court invalidating many provisions of Wisconsin’s controversial package of voter ID laws, problems persist for many voters seeking to register to vote, or to procure an ID that will allow them to vote. Reports that certain Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices, which have the authority to issue valid voter IDs, have not fully complied with the federal court’s order continue to crop up.

Part of the federal court’s remedy for the possible disenfranchisement of eligible voters was to amend the state’s “safety net” to rapidly provide provisional voter IDs for would-be voters who lack the necessary documentation to obtain a voter ID. The ID Petition Process (IDPP) under the old framework could take up to eight weeks to resolve whether or not a voter could receive an ID, meaning that certain voters who entered the process would not have had their petitions acknowledged in time for the election in November. Under the opinion from the District Court, the IDPP had to be expedited to ensure that voters would not languish in procedural limbo as Election Day came and went. The official Wisconsin DMV policy reflects this alteration to IDPP, stating that an ID for voting can be obtained without certain pieces of identification, provided that potential voters fill out additional forms.

The reality on the ground, according to activists, is starkly different. Confusion seems to reign at various DMV offices, with some officials under the impression that the provisional ID is not sent out right away, and others that believe no decision has been made as to the new process. This confusion contrasts with the statements submitted to the District Court by Brad Schimel, the state’s Attorney General. To the contrary, Schimel informed the court that DMV employees had been trained to quickly resolve application issues, and to distribute IDs even in the absence of a birth certificate. Despite this assurance, it appears that voters may still encounter prohibited hurdles to procure their IDs, depending on which DMV they go to.

This lack of coordination has dismayed activists and the ruling court alike. Judge Peterson, who originally invalidated portions of Wisconsin’s Voter ID law package, held that “[Wisconsin officials] really did nothing in response to my order.” Political activists similarly noted that their attempts to test the waters to ensure that DMVs across Wisconsin were on the same page resulted in confirmed confusion as to what the process for obtaining a valid ID really is.

The confusion and subsequent rebukes and frantic changes to voter ID procedures takes on a more ominous tone in the wake of the 2016 elections. Ramped up early voting efforts in Wisconsin demonstrated that election officials were still confused and in disarray. While no information is available as to the number of voters misled by erroneous advice from the DMV, the confusion surrounding what voters must be told, who must tell them, and what DMV employees are told to tell voters, raises troubling implications for the voting administration in a swing state.

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