The fight against Wisconsin’s Voter ID laws

By Shahzeb Ahmed

To Sharon Luellen, being part of the electoral process is more than just a civic obligation. It is her right.

“My vote counts,” she said succinctly as she sat on a canopy-shaded steel bench across from the homeless shelter where she lives. A new photo ID in hand after an unexpectedly swift trip to a local Department of Motor Vehicles office, she is excited to cast her ballot.

“You know, if I couldn’t vote here, I would probably leave Madison and go somewhere I can vote; probably Chicago,” Luellen said.

Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, passed in 2011, requires voters to prove they are living at a Wisconsin address, be registered to vote in Wisconsin and be a US citizen. This will be the first election for which the law is being implemented.

A federal judge criticized the state for making it too hard for some residents to acquire the IDs, a process that disproportionately harms aspiring voters like Luellen, who has no car, no permanent address and few resources.

“The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities,” U.S. District Judge James Peterson observed during the July 29 hearing. “To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”

Judge Peterson struck down several restrictions placed by the laws, but observed that he could not overturn the entire voter ID law because a federal appeals court had already found such restrictions to be constitutional.

But Luellen was determined. Luckily for her, she happened to meet Gail Bliss at the Salvation Army homeless shelter, where she was living at the time.

Bliss was volunteering to help homeless persons acquire documentation that would enable them to vote in the upcoming elections. She drove Luellen and her daughter, Michelle, first to the Social Security Office in Madison to get their social security cards and then to the DMV to get state IDs. The Salvation Army provided documentation attesting the fact that Luellen was a resident of the shelter at the time.

Bliss, 61, is runs the voting services department at the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s photo ID law.

Among the scores of people Bliss has helped, one of the most difficult cases was that of Beverly Lynn Winters – a Chicago-born woman who had moved to Madison to be closer to her boyfriend after growing tired of the violence in Chicago. She had just been robbed at gunpoint and had lost all her IDs. Luckily, she still had her social security card, which she kept at home as advised by the Social Security Administration.

When she got to Madison, she began living in a homeless shelter. She had previously worked for a Chicago-based social service agency feeding homeless people. Her role had now reversed. And then things got worse.

Winters was robbed again in Madison. This time, she lost her social security card too.

“The problem is you can’t leave your social security card at home when you are homeless,” said Bliss.

Unable to find a job without the social security card, Winters went to apply for one, only to be told her records didn’t match the name on her birth certificate. She contacted the League of Women Voters, which had a $5,000 grant from the Evjue Foundation to help people pay for birth certificates. She finally managed to get one online.

By now, however, her troubles were only beginning. “When Beverly was born in Chicago, her parents had not decided on her name,” said Bliss. “So her birth certificate said ‘Female Winters’”. The DMV in Wisconsin would not issue a social security card because it requires a photo-ID. Winters could not get a photo ID because it requires a social security card. She was stuck in a catch-22.

The one way she could prove it was her birth certificate was to get her school records that identified her as Beverly Winters. She managed to get an elementary school record showing her name, birth date and parents’ information. That, too, was deemed inadmissible.

“Luckily, and I know it sounds silly when I say luckily, but she’d had a bad asthma attack a month before and had been to the emergency room,” Bliss recalled. They went to the hospital and acquired a certified copy of the medical record showing her name.

The Social Security office finally accepted the medical record as proof and issued her a social security card. She then used the card to get a state ID from the DMV. Winters was able to get a job and move out of the shelter – something she hadn’t been able to do previously because no one would hire her without a social security card. The whole process had taken around 16 months, in large part because Winters had kept disappearing and resurfacing.

As Bliss sat on a sofa chair in the Madison Public Library where she was facilitating early voters that day, she told story after story of people she had helped acquire IDs. The common thread in was that the procedure is simple if done right.

“Sometimes its detective work,” she said. Mostly, it’s just a matter of taking out the time to go to the DMV and go through the process. “But if you’re struggling to pay rent while working a full-time blue-collar job, voting is probably not your number one priority.”

Voting booths set up at the Madison Public Library to facilitate citizens wishing to vote early. (Shahzeb Ahmed/MEDILL)
Voting booths at the Madison Public Library to facilitate citizens wishing to vote early. (Shahzeb Ahmed/MEDILL)

Another major issue is the lack of transportation from the suburbs to any of the DMV offices. “Most people affected by the stricter Voter ID laws are poor and likely don’t have a car. Getting to the DMV to get a photo ID is an ordeal in itself,” she said. Over the last four years, Bliss has driven several people in situations similar to Luellen’s to the DMV.

She believes that the Voter ID laws have been encouraged by the American Legislative Exchange Council – a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts and shares model state-level legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States.

“They are attempting to make it more challenging to vote and they are attempting to sow the seeds of distrust in the election system,” she said slowly, carefully selecting her words. “The law wasn’t so much confusing as restrictive. You can use a Minnesota ID to rent a video or board an airplane but you can’t use it to vote in Wisconsin.”

Anita Johnson, the state coordinator for Voteriders – a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that assists people in getting photo IDs for voting – echoes Bliss’ sentiment. “There are around 300,000 people [in Wisconsin] that could possibly not vote due to the confusion of the law. It affects people of color, senior citizens, people with disabilities, the homeless and students.”

The law is so new that many people think there is something called a voter ID that they must have before voting.

“In Wisconsin, there is no such thing as a voter ID. There is only a photo ID that you show when you want to register to vote,” said Johnson, who blames “the Republicans for perpetuating the confusion to stop people from going to vote”.

Her fears may not be unfounded, as revealed time and again by whistleblowers and members of the Republican Party itself. Todd Allbaugh, a staff aide to a Republican state legislator in Wisconsin, quit his job in 2015 and left the party due to what he witnessed at a Republican caucus meeting. He wrote on Facebook:

“I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American’s constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power”.

In fact, Judge Peterson had also observed that, “The Legislature’s immediate goal was to achieve a partisan objective, but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African-Americans.”

Johnson, Bliss and others like them are, however, adamant to get as many people to vote as possible by assisting them in acquiring the proper photo IDs.

“This is personal. You know, my grandmother couldn’t vote,” Bliss said, noting that the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote was not ratified until 1920. “I don’t want anybody to be disenfranchised. Not happening on my watch.”

Photo at top: Sharon Luellen (left) and Gail Bliss talk about their recent experience at the DMV where they went to get Luellen’s photo ID. (Shahzeb Ahmed/MEDILL)