Video Courtesy of Forward Community Investments
With all of her necessary documentation, University of Wisconsin-Madison student Brooke Evans arrived at her polling place on Nov. 8, 2016, for the presidential election. For her, voting that day meant not only casting a ballot for the first female presidential candidate with a real shot of winning, but having a voice in a society in which homeless people such as herself were marginalized.
“There’s something about voting that makes you very real,” Evans said.
But when poll workers examined her mailing address under the guidelines of the Wisconsin voter ID law enacted in 2015, the University of Wisconsin-Madison philosophy major initially was barred from voting due to confusion over her address.
The law requires Wisconsin residents to present certain forms of photo identification to vote but does not require that the ID have the voter’s current address. Such voters must provide proof of their current address — and that is where Evans ran into trouble. She eventually was able to cast a ballot using a campus address she herself had advocated for to help homeless students.
Not only did Evans, as a college student, face increased obstacles under the voter ID law, her homelessness was another barrier — one that almost prevented her from exercising a fundamental right of citizenship.
“I was just really surprised at the hassle I was given,” Evans said.
Over the past 15 years, voting has become increasingly difficult for people such as Evans. A recent PRRI/The Atlantic 2018 Voter Engagement Survey found that 5 percent of Wisconsin residents surveyed said they or someone in their household was told they lacked the proper documentation to vote. (The Joyce Foundation is a funder of the survey and also is a funder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s coverage of democracy issues.)
A 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report concluded that voter ID laws may reduce voter turnout. The report examined 10 studies, as well as turnout in Kansas and Tennessee compared to other states without voter ID laws. The GAO estimated turnout was cut by up to 2.2 percentage points in Kansas and 3.2 percentage points in Tennessee in the 2008 and 2012 elections — with larger decreases seen among specific groups, including those ages 18 to 23 and African-Americans.
Such a margin can be decisive. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point, or 47.22 percent of the vote, edging out Democrat Hillary Clinton, who got 46.45 percent. Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has even credited the photo ID requirement with helping Trump win Wisconsin.
Although requiring voter identification in some form has a history stemming back to the 1950s, laws requiring all voters without exception to have specific forms of identification gained traction in 2005. Currently, 34 states have voter ID laws, with Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Wisconsin being some of the strictest, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Except for people with religious objections, all voters in Wisconsin are required to present photo identification at the polls. These include state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards, U.S. passports and certain IDs issued by Wisconsin accredited universities or colleges.
Wisconsin’s photo ID requirement passed in 2011 and was prompted by Republican concerns about ostensible voter fraud. But that justification has been discredited by several subsequent studies and rejected by a federal judge who in 2016 labeled concerns over voter fraud “mostly phantom.”
So after years of legal wrangling, Wisconsin’s photo ID requirement was put in place for the first general statewide election in 2016.
In Wisconsin, voter ID enjoys strong support from the public. Marquette Law School polls taken between 2012 and 2014 showed between 60 and 66 percent of Wisconsin residents surveyed favored requiring a government-issued photo identification card to vote. It should be noted that among those answering the poll in 2014, 99 percent said they had a valid photo ID to vote.
There are still lingering challenges to the law. The federal appeals court in Chicago has not issued a ruling in two cases despite hearing arguments in February 2017.
Analiese Eicher described how, during her time as a UW-Madison student from 2006 to 2011, she and her roommates would walk to the polling places together so that one could vouch for the address of the others. Eicher is program director at One Wisconsin Now, the left-leaning advocacy group suing to overturn the law. The law no longer allows for a “corroborating witness” to provide proof of residency for voters.
Since Eicher’s time in college, ID requirements for students have become much stricter. Of the 13 University of Wisconsin four-year campuses, only four provide campus-issued student IDs that are compliant for voting.
That means out-of-state students and students with no driver’s licenses at those schools must get a second ID card from the university, which is valid for only two years, as well as a Voter Enrollment Verification letter proving they are enrolled in school.
These extra steps were by design: A former GOP staffer testified in 2016 that some Republican senators in a closed session were “giddy” about the prospect of voter ID suppressing votes by Milwaukee residents and college students, both of whom tend to vote Democratic.
Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, said Wisconsin and other states risk delegitimizing their own elections by suppressing participation.
“We have to think really carefully about the barriers that are put into voting in an already-declining voter turnout reality that we live in,” Klaas said.
In the 2016 presidential election, Wisconsin’s overall voter turnout was 70.5 percent, the lowest in two decades.
In Sauk City, a town of around 3,400 residents about 30 miles north of the state Capitol in Madison, voters in the last presidential election without a proper form of identification could obtain free state ID cards at local Division of Motor Vehicles offices — but that office was only open every fifth Wednesday of every month — or just four days in 2016.
“(The voter ID law) made it harder for people to cast a ballot,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan political watchdog group. “Making it much harder to vote is about as anti-democratic as you can get.”
Gail Juszczak of Lake Mills said she believes the voter ID law is aimed squarely at people likely to vote Democratic.
“I think that the whole vote and the whole idea of changing this is to exclude certain people from voting,” said Juszczak, interviewed outside her polling place during the Aug. 14 partisan primary election. “And I think it’s definitely hurt the Democratic Party, particularly because more of the Democrats are people who aren’t as able to show identification as clearly.”
The state also initially did a poor job of explaining the changes to residents, said Anita Johnson, a Milwaukee resident who has been educating voters on their rights for 25 years. In 2015, Johnson began working with VoteRiders, a national nonprofit organization specializing in helping people obtain proper identification to vote
“People are confused,” Johnson said. “Some people at the beginning thought that there was an actual voter ID card. There is no such thing as a voter ID card.”
Among those who may have difficulty obtaining proper ID for voting are senior citizens, some of whom lack state-issued driver’s licenses or other documentation, said Gail Bliss, a senior liaison for the League of Women Voters in Dane County.
Kathleen Fullin, who also works for the league, remembers the case of a senior citizen with a driver’s license that had expired since the last general election, which is a valid form of ID for voting under the law.
“Her family had actually contacted the Wisconsin Elections Commission and knew she should be permitted to cast a regular ballot, but the chief inspector at her polling place would not permit it,” Fullin said in an email.
Said Johnson: “Voting should be one of the easiest things you can do. And it allows you to participate in democracy. So when you put up problems like the voter ID law, people say ‘Forget it, I’m not going to vote.’ ”
Challengers to the voter ID law had argued that hundreds of thousands of valid Wisconsin voters — many of them Hispanic, African-American and students — could be barred from casting ballots because of the identification requirement.
A UW-Madison study commissioned by Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell in 2017 estimated that thousands of registered voters in Dane and Milwaukee counties were deterred or prevented from voting because of the photo ID requirement in the 2016 presidential election — a situation that more heavily affected low-income people and African-Americans. The survey was mailed to 2,400 registered voters; 293 were returned.
Based on the sampling weight, UW-Madison political science professor Kenneth Mayer concluded that between 11,701 and 23,252 people did not vote due to confusion over voter ID requirements or lack of proper identification.
Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes.
Mayer’s conclusion was challenged by a free market, limited government legal group, which contended there was no proven linkage between the photo ID requirement and the election results. Will Flanders, research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said the study “pushed a narrative” of voter suppression but did not actually prove it.
“The most this survey can claim to prove is that the administration of the law could have been improved or that the candidates could have run better ground games,” Flanders wrote.
But, with the 2018 general election approaching, stories like Brooke Evans’ show how easily confusion about voting can jeopardize voting. If it were not for her own efforts to help homeless students, Evans said, she herself might not have been able to vote.
“I ended up relying on (activism) to access basic human rights, like the right to vote.”
The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.