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Federal judge orders investigation into Wisconsin’s voter ID system

Molly McGrath helps Matthew Kurtz fill out a voter registration form in Madison, Wis. (Scott Bauer/AP)
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A federal judge on Friday ordered Wisconsin officials to investigate whether DMV workers are giving prospective voters correct information about a system meant to provide IDs to those who might have trouble getting them. If they aren’t, it could jeopardize the state’s voter ID law.

U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson wrote in a two-page order that state officials must investigate whether DMV employees are instructing customers properly on the “ID Petition Process” — a system by which Wisconsinites who lack required documents, such as birth certificates, can get alternate papers that would let them vote.

That is pivotal, because a federal appeals court has previously said its conclusion that Wisconsin’s voter ID law is constitutional depends on officials adequately implementing and informing the public about the ID Petition Process. Peterson had previously ordered reforms to the process so that it could function as a “safety net” for those who might be left unable to cast a ballot by Wisconsin’s strict ID requirement.

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A spokesman for the Wisconsin Justice Department, which has defended the voter ID law, said the agency would comply with Peterson’s order.

The judge gave state officials until Oct. 7 to report back to the court.

Voting rights advocates and state lawyers have sparred for years over whether Wisconsin’s voter ID law is constitutional, but until Peterson’s order Friday, it had seemed as if the landscape for the November election was largely set. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit last month ruled that voters could be required to present an ID, and they could not present an affidavit attesting to their identity instead. The appeals court said, though, its ruling rested on an assurance by state lawyers that voting credentials would be “available to all qualified persons who seek them” and that the state would not refuse to initiate the ID Petition Process.

The appeals court left it to Peterson to monitor compliance.

Peterson wrote that his recent order was sparked by news reports, first in the Nation and then in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suggesting that “DMV personnel have provided incorrect information to persons who have applied for Wisconsin IDs for voting.” The news outlets detailed the experience of Zack Moore, a 34-year-old African American who is homeless and sleeping on the streets of Madison, as he went to the DMV to get an ID in September. He was accompanied by Molly McGrath, who works with the group VoteRiders to help people in Wisconsin get IDs to vote and who recorded the experience. She provided the audio of her recording to The Washington Post.

Moore went to the DMV with an Illinois photo ID, Social Security card and a pay stub to prove his residence, but he did not have a copy of his birth certificate. Under the reforms Wisconsin officials have promised, DMV workers should have initiated the ID Petition Process — which would essentially ask Illinois to confirm Moore’s birth information — and sent him a receipt within six business days, allowing him to vote.

But, according to the recording, one DMV employee initially told Moore he would have to go to Illinois to get his birth certificate. McGrath then intervened to inquire about the “petition process.” The employees talked with Moore about his ability to get his birth certificate, and Moore said he would try to get his sister to send it to him.

McGrath then inquired generally about the ID petition process and was told at various points Moore wouldn’t get anything right away, and that it was unclear whether he would be able to get documentation in time to vote.

“I’m trying to figure out the other process, like, how long would that take?” Moore asked at one point.

“Six to eight weeks,” a DMV employee responded.

“Whoa,” Moore responded.

“That’s what I’m saying. If you know where your birth certificate is, it’s definitely faster to get it, you know, even if you have to drive down there and get it and come back,” the employee said.

“It’s a much lengthier process than what people think,” he added later.

When McGrath inquired specifically about signage in the DMV indicating, “You can get an ID to vote,” the employee responded: “You can. It just takes time.”

“So even if we just start the petition process, he wouldn’t get anything temporarily that says you can vote,” McGrath asked.

“No,” the employee responded.

The DMV later noted that officials had “been saying they’re trying to speed that process up, but the thing that hinges on that whole process is how quickly the state gets back to us.”

Peterson wrote in his ruling, “These reports, if true, demonstrate that the state is not in compliance with this court’s injunction order.” Patty Mayers, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said the report was “concerning and is not consistent with DMV protocol.” She said officials had already begun their own investigation before Peterson’s order.

While it is not clear whether Moore’s experience is the exception, rather than the rule, McGrath said a VoteRiders volunteer had surveyed 10 DMVs in the state, and only three said documentation to vote could be provided within a week.

“This is alarming, right?” McGrath said. “The safety net in the strict law isn’t working.”

This post has been updated.

Read more:

Voters in Wisconsin will need an ID in November, but it should be easier to get one

Appeals court strikes down North Carolina’s voter ID law