Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In July, a court found a good, secure solution for voters without access to photo ID. Now it’s been taken away.
The see-sawing saga of Wisconsin’s photo voter ID law has now leveled off somewhat—but that’s not a good thing. In July, a federal district court ruled that Wisconsin’s law requiring people to show certain forms of photo ID to vote was too restrictive. The court said that the state had to at least allow voters to sign an affidavit confirming their identity to vote if they didn’t have photo ID.
However, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on August 26 that the affidavit provision isn’t needed because the state’s offer to supply people with a free photo ID for voting was sufficient. Wisconsin originally required people to bring a birth certificate, or some similar official document, to get that state-issued photo ID. Under this new court compromise, showing up at a DMV office to get photographed will alone be enough for people to obtain an ID card from the state.
The prior conditions allowing for people to merely sign an affidavit at the voting booth was the preferable option for those concerned that a voter ID law could hamper ballot access for vulnerable populations. Studies have shown that black and Latino people are far less likely to possess official ID for a variety of reasons, from lacking the necessary documents to police confiscation of driver’s licenses. Such problems extend to women, students, and transgender voters as well.
However, with the court now walking back a good solution for those populations and instead insisting on the DMV system, the complications around obtaining ID to vote remain. These people will still have to get to a DMV office, and it can’t be assumed that’s an easy task for everyone, especially those who work two or three jobs, who have no car, or who are disabled.
As Zach Roth points out at MSNBC, only 3 of Wisconsin’s 92 DMV offices are open after 5 p.m., only two are open on weekends, and half of them are open just twice a week. Making compliance with a voter ID law contingent upon contact with DMV offices with sketchy hours is not a good recipe for political participation. Alabama is tied up in litigation with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund right now over the state’s photo voter ID law, which also calls for people to seek a DMV office for free ID if they don’t have one. Alabama’s DMV offices have even worse hours than Wisconsin’s. Many in the state have to drive for miles to get to some locations that are open as seldom as once a week, which has affected more than just their voting opportunities.
Also troubling is the fact that the strategy of having the state create “free” (free in name only) IDs for voting purposes has not been working in other states. In Texas, the state issued just 653 free voter ID cards, as of March, over the past three years—in a state with millions of voters, and where hundreds of thousands of people lack photo ID. A federal court found Texas’s photo voter ID law a violation of the Voting Rights Act in July, and ordered the state to allow people to sign affidavits confirming their identity to vote if they don’t have ID.
What’s more, Wisconsin may now be stuck with a law that could hinder voting for people who actually are able to make it to a DMV office for the voter ID. Wisconsin’s DMV currently only mails the IDs to people, which could take days to reach them. This would not help anyone who only got to the DMV office on election day, or the day before.
And then there’s the fact that Wisconsin’s initial gripe and raison d’être for having a voter ID law in the first place is not addressed by this compromise. The problem was supposedly voter impersonation fraud—a thing that not only rarely happens, but could not be deterred by voter ID anyway. If the concern is that someone could fake their identity to vote, then what stops them from faking their identity to get a free ID card?
It can’t be emphasized enough that confusing people with conflicting information on who can vote and how can have a disenfranchising effect all by itself. Wisconsin would be wise to consider that if it is really serious about maintaining election integrity.