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Voter ID Education Efforts Begin in Earnest in Wisconsin

Presidential campaigns won’t be the only ones vying for voters’ attention as next year’s elections grow near. The other campaign that will gain steam is the race to prepare people for Wisconsin’s photo ID law.

The law will require voters to present government-issued identification at the polls.

This past spring, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the legal challenges to the law. That’s caused groups that fought the requirement to shift gears.

“We’ve been focused primarily on trying to overturn the law. That having failed, now we’re trying to limit its impact,” says William Jones of the Dane County NAACP. “I think we’re really at the stage of figuring out how to address this. It’s a really big challenge,” Jones says.

The challenge is making sure up to 300,000 voters visit a DMV office to apply for a state photo ID card before the 2016 elections. It's estimated that 300,000 people are registered to vote, but don't have the proper ID in Wisconsin.

The Milwaukee County Democratic Party has devised a fanciful method for educating voters about the law. The party props up a big, cardboard wheel outside its booth at summer festivals. It looks like a carnival game. Lillian Cheesman debuted it at Milwaukee’s recent Juneteenth Day celebration.

“It’s spin the wheel and it lands on a number and I ask a question about voter ID,” Cheesman says.

Cheesman says the answers people are giving prove what she feared: a lot of them are confused about the photo ID requirement.

“The one question people are getting wrong the most often is that the name on your ID doesn’t have to be perfectly exact with what’s in the polling book. So, ‘Bill,” instead of your full name being ‘William,’ that will usually be OK, especially if it’s a common nickname,” Cheesman says.

Lillian Cheesman of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party demonstrates a game designed to promote voter ID education

Cheesman says party members are making sure people realize that the DMV will issue free state IDs -- and that it might not be wise to wait until 2016.

“They’ll help get your birth records and verify you are who you are, but we don’t know how long that process will take,” Cheesman says.

Anita Johnson conducts voter ID outreach efforts for the group Citizen Action of Wisconsin. She speaks at places like nursing homes and community centers. Last week ,she gave a presentation at a church on Milwaukee’s northwest side.

She said she believes the two groups most affected by the photo ID requirement are senior citizens and college students. Johnson says seniors may require help, if they don’t have a birth certificate. Some college students who can use a school ID to vote will need additional documentation.

“They have to show a receipt that they are actually attending classes that semester,” Johnson says.

Dorethea Booker, whose son attends MATC, was eager to hear about the requirements for college students. “Just for him to let his friends know, you know -- the young people -- so they could spread the word on what’s needed, because, frankly, they don’t really pay attention to this kind of stuff,” Booker said.

Other groups are canvassing neighborhoods to learn who needs an ID, and perhaps a ride to the DMV.

The state Government Accountability Board is counting on advocacy groups to spread the message. The agency has posted informational videos online, but doesn’t have a budget for radio or TV ads. The agency’s head hopes the Legislature approves money for that purpose.

The City of Milwaukee, meanwhile, has a small budget for print ads. Yet election commissioner Neil Albrecht says he plans to hold off for a few months before launching an informational campaign.

“While we want to certainly institutionalize the whole concept of voter ID, a lot of that messaging could be lost if people just aren’t thinking about voting right now,” Albrecht says.

Albrecht says the City might gain some sense this summer of how aware residents are of the photo ID law. Voters in the southwestern corner of Milwaukee will fill a vacancy on the Common Council. Photo IDs will be required at the polls.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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