Agencies, Advocates Await Word on How to Help Wisconsin Voters Obtain Photo IDs

Sep 16, 2014

Poll workers check a voter's ID in Florida.
Credit Mark Wallheiser / Stringer

The wheels are spinning in Wisconsin for the big change coming to polling places - voter ID.

On Election Day November 4, people will have to show a government-issued, photo ID in order to vote.

Republican lawmakers approved the requirement in 2011. It was in place for one low turnout election in early 2012, then a court blocked it. Late Friday, a federal appeals court reinstated the mandate.

There are several forms of photo identification the Wisconsin voter ID law will accept. The most common will likely be a driver’s license, but others include a passport or a military ID.

Berneice Jones and Betty Miles
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

One person who doesn’t have any of those is 94-year-old Berneice Jones of Milwaukee. We found her at a DMV office on the north side Monday. She was applying for a state ID, so she can vote in November.

“I don’t miss no vote. I vote absentee every year, every year,” Jones says.

Jones’ friend Betty Miles drove her to the DMV. Miles says Jones has tried to get a state ID for more than a year, but has been blocked by the requirement that she show a birth certificate.

“During the time she was born, they didn’t have birth certificates, they had midwives,” Miles says.

On Monday, Miles and Jones hoped for better luck. They had heard that the state just began helping people with no birth certificate by tracking down the record for free. Miles says a DMV worker collected Jones’ information and sent it to another state agency.

“She gave us a paper saying that she had turned it in to Madison, and Madison would be getting it in touch with her with an ID. But they first have to, I guess, check with Nashville, TN, because she was born in Tennessee, to see what information about her birth that they can find there,” Miles says.

If the state can verify Jones’ birth record, she’ll get an ID in the mail. A lot of seniors won’t be as lucky, according to Stephanie Stein. She heads the Milwaukee County Department on Aging. Stein says it’s unrealistic for many to travel to a DMV office.

“First of all, you have to get there. Second, there are usually a lot of people at DMVs,” Stein says, referring to crowds and long waits.

“It’s getting there, it’s standing in line, it’s being able to understand what people are telling you, it’s having the right documentation when you get there so you don’t have to go back,” Stein says.

The right documentation must include a proof of residency document, such as a paycheck or utility bill, listing their address. They also must submit a proof of identity document, such as a Social Security card or marriage certificate. That’s in addition to the birth certificate they may or may not have.

Stein says her agency will try to get as many seniors as possible hooked up with IDs. She expects outreach to begin as soon as state elections officials decide on the proper message to share with voters.

Neil Albrecht also is eagerly awaiting instruction. He’s executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

“Everyone is in a holding pattern, at a pretty critical time in this election, for additional instructions,” Albrecht says.

For instance, instructions on whether the city can use the same signage and handouts for voters as it did during the one election when the photo ID mandate was in place.

Albrecht says the Election Commission also will have to figure out how to share new information with poll workers.

“We have already trained the 1,500 core poll workers that work every election at every voting site in the city of Milwaukee, and at that time there was a stay on the voter ID, and so there was very little time dedicated to it in training,” Albrecht says.

Yet the city is better off than some. Albrecht says Milwaukee will mail out absentee ballots later this week. Some municipalities mailed theirs before Friday’s court ruling, so the ballots did not instruct voters to return them with a photocopy of an ID.