Voter ID bill raises ire on both sidesIn addition to thinking about candidates and their stands on issues, a bill that appears destined to be signed into law this week would require voters to remember one more thing on election days: a photo identification card.
By: By Eric Lindquist, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis., Superior Telegram
In addition to thinking about candidates and their stands on issues, a bill that appears destined to be signed into law this week would require voters to remember one more thing on election days: a photo identification card.
It's a seemingly small requirement with potentially large consequences. Supporters maintain the voter ID bill would help preserve the democratic system of government by ensuring the integrity of elections, while opponents argue the measure would damage democracy by making it harder for some voters to cast ballots.
The Assembly approved the bill Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to do the same Tuesday before sending it to Gov. Scott Walker, a longtime supporter of voter ID, for his signature.
The bill's GOP proponents -- every Republican in the Assembly voted for the proposal, along with two Democrats and an independent -- claim its primary purpose is to help eliminate voter fraud, thereby restoring public confidence in the electoral system.
"Elections free from manipulation are crucial to protecting a process inherent to our representative government, and presenting photo identification is one way to protect the legitimacy of our voting structure," Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Lake Hallie, said in a statement. "Voter fraud in Wisconsin has not necessarily overturned an election, but that doesn't mean it should go unchecked. Even one fraudulent vote is one too many."
Opponents counter that widespread voter fraud doesn't exist in Wisconsin, and the bill would spend money the state doesn't have to disenfranchise some voters and inconvenience others for no real purpose.
"It's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," said Jay Heck, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause Wisconsin.
After weighing the evidence, retired Eau Claire County Judge Thomas Barland tends to agree, and his opinion carries more weight than most because in January he was named chairman of the Government Accountability Board, the nonpartisan agency that enforces state election laws.
While several people have complained about potential incidents of voter fraud during GAB meetings, Barland said none of them could be verified, making them "really nothing more than rumors."
He knows of a tiny number of people who have voted twice in an election or of felons who illegally voted while still on probation or parole.
"From my experience, there has not been evidence of any substantial or significant fraud. Hence I do not see the need for any voter ID legislation," Barland said, adding that it would be the board's duty to enforce the law if the Legislature passes it.
The issue also divides two officials with years of experience supervising local elections.
Republican Rep. Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie, the Chippewa County clerk for 12 years until resigning this year, voted for the bill last week, but Eau Claire County Clerk Janet Loomis said the measure is unnecessary.
"I personally have not seen any evidence of fraud," said Loomis, a Democrat who has worked in the clerk's office for 17 years. "I just think the system is very tight, so if you did have anything going on you'd catch it."
She also worries the new requirements would slow down the process on election days and lead to issues in which poll workers would have to determine whether ID photos look like voters, even those who may have lost their hair or had other appearance changes due to medication.
Bernier believes the state has many cases of undetected voter fraud.
"We do have many cases of out and out voter fraud, but they're just not prosecuted due to time constraints on district attorneys and the difficulty of finding the people who commit the fraud," Bernier said, recalling reports from Chippewa County poll workers of voters who, for instance, claimed to be someone else or bullied their way into voting for an absent spouse.
"If we're going to keep election day registration, then our thinking was we have to be stricter about what it takes to vote on that day," Bernier said. "The way it is now is too wide open to fraud."
Some Republicans have suggested they want to vote on the measure before a series of Senate recall elections are held, likely this summer, said Barland, who represented Eau Claire in the Assembly in the 1960s as a Republican. That would ensure the GOP, which gained control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office in the November election, still could pass the bill, even if the party were to lose control of the Senate after the recalls.
Democrats have blocked Republican efforts to pass voter ID legislation for the past decade.
The issue is more political than philosophical, and the bill is being pushed under false pretenses, Heck said.
"Republicans claim it will prevent voter fraud, but they can't point to any," Heck said. "They ought to call it what it really is -- an attempt to suppress votes by groups that tend to vote Democratic. At least that would be more honest."
Groups including students, senior citizens, the disabled, minorities and low-income residents tend to have fewer driver's licenses and photo IDs and thus would be disproportionately affected by the law, said Heck and Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma.
"What they're doing is very cynical," Heck said. "It's an attempt to give Republicans an edge at the polling place. Everybody knows that."
Rep. Mark Radcliffe, D-Black River Falls, said he considers voter ID a governmental limit on individual rights, calling the measure "an attack on Americans by making them prove that they are Americans."
Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau has complained that voter ID could harm rural voters, who may have difficulty getting to Division of Motor Vehicles service centers because of reduced hours and locations.
Republicans, however, portray the bill as a common sense measure to address growing mistrust among voters about the honesty of elections.
"We want to make sure your vote counts when you go to the polls," said Rep. Warren Petryk, a Republican from rural Eau Claire. "We want to make sure that elections are fair and honest. I don't think anything is more important in a democracy."
Ensuring no one gets away with impersonating another voter or voting more than once is particularly important at a time with so many close elections, Petryk said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that nine states already mandate a photo ID at the polls and 19 others require some other form of identification.
Rep. John Murtha, R-Baldwin, interpreted those statistics this way: "Wisconsin is once again coming in line with the majority of other states to protect what many see as our most basic right."
But Heck pointed out that, considering the forms of photo ID allowed, the bill passed 60-35 by the Assembly would give Wisconsin the most restrictive voter ID rules in the United States.
That's a sad development in a state with the second-highest voter turnout in the nation, Heck said, adding: "What did we do to deserve this?"
Heck also took issue with the cost of the measure at a time when drastic cuts are being made to education, local government aid and other core services. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates it would cost at least $5.7 million to implement the law, but Heck predicted the ultimate price tag would be much higher once the cost of likely legal challenges and changes to bring student IDs into compliance are factored in.
That's a small price to pay for something so important, Petryk said.
"To ensure fair and honest auditing of elections," he said, "I believe that's money well-spent."
Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Acceptable ID at Polls
If the voter ID bill is signed into law, as approved by the Assembly, Wisconsin residents going to the polls would be required to show a driver's license, state identification, a military ID, a passport, naturalization papers, a tribal ID or certain student IDs to vote.
Student IDs would be allowable if they came from accredited public and private colleges in Wisconsin, included signatures and expired within two years of being issued.
Free state IDs would be available to residents who ask for them.
View a video showing former Eau Claire County Judge Thomas Barland talking about voter ID and other issues facing the state Government Accountability Board, which he chairs: LeaderTelegram.com/video
To see more of The Leader-Telegram or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.leadertelegram.com.
Copyright (c) 2011, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services