by Chris Lewis
Could Wisconsin soon be the center of another political controversy? A test run of the state’s new voter identification law on Oct. 11 led to long lines and frustrated voters, which could cause state Democrats to amplify their attacks on a law they already claim is costly and intended only to suppress voter turnout. State Republicans have expressed strong support for the law since its passage in May, and have expressed no desire to make any changes before it takes full effect before February’s primary elections.
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl called for the mock election after noticing irregularities during July’s State Senate recall elections. Poll workers in those elections were instructed to request voters’ identification even though it was not yet required. Witzel-Behl indicated that the workers were inconsistently following this instruction. Following Tuesday’s mock election, Witzel-Behl estimated that it took each voter two minutes to present identification and sign the poll book, a standard she found “very alarming.” She also noted that several people left the line due to the long wait.
Still, Witzel-Behl indicated that poll workers were able to reduce the time it took to process voters as the election progressed but said, “I think it’s pretty clear we will have to do more hands-on training to prepare for the elections.”
Republican Go. Scott Walker signed the controversial bill in May, with the vote breaking down mainly along party lines. Voters in the Badger State will be required as of 2012 to show valid state-issued photo identification before voting. The state did preserve its same-day registration, in place since 1976, though at least one legislator has recently called for its end.
The arguments made for and against the law should be familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in the issue. State Republicans argued the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud, with their Democratic counterparts labeling it an attack on voting rights.
Gov. Walker called the voter identification law a “common sense reform” that would “go along away to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin,” upon signing the bill.
Not surprisingly, Mike Tate, Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, had harsher words for the law in a statement he released in May.
“Without any real need for this legislation, Republicans knew that it would most impact the elderly, students, shut-ins, African-Americans, Latinos and other groups that tend to vote Democratic. They have limited rights rather than expanding them, spent taxpayer dollars rather than saving them, grown government rather than shrinking it, and shown their distrust for democracy, rather than any love of it.”
Tate also pointed to the cost of the law, estimated to be around $6 million in the first year and $4 million in subsequent years, though Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb has countered that much of the cost will be in opening new Department of Motor Vehicle offices and creating a “massive expansion of services to the public.”
The law has also faced criticism from some university administrators in the state. Darrell Bazzell, vice chancellor for administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has estimated that it may cost as much as $700,000 to update student identification cards to meet the law’s standards, which include a required signature on the card as well as a maximum two-year period between issuance and expiration. Gregg Heinselmann, chancellor for student affairs at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls expressed similar objections to the law, and has said the school will only print voter identification cards for students who request them.
“The cost to redistribute 7,000 IDs is a little cost prohibitive for us,” said Heinselman.
The League of Women Voters promised in August to challenge the law, though Marquette University Professor of Law Edward Fallone has expressed doubts about the chances of a lawsuit being successful. He points to the 2008 Supreme Court case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board that upheld a similar Indiana law as constitutional. With Crawford serving as precedent, “litigation challenging the constitutionality of state laws imposing a voter ID requirement faces an uphill battle,” wrote Fallone on the Marquette faculty blog.
In addition to the Republican presidential primary, Wisconsin will also have primary elections for retiring Democratic Senator Hebert Kohl’s seat in 2012, as well as potential recall elections for Gov. Walker and state legislators. As America’s political eyes turn back to the Badger State next spring, it will be worth being aware of the state’s new law and any potential impact it will have on the state’s elections.
Chris Lewis is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School.