Leroy Switlick has voted for 46 years in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But Switlick, who is legally blind, was unable to obtain a piece of photo identification that would comply with the state’s strict new voter ID law to cast a regular ballot in Tuesday's primary.
Wisconsin is one of 17 states with new restrictions on voting in place for this year’s presidential election. Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who signed the state’s voter ID law in 2011, say such requirements prevent voter fraud, even though in-person impersonation fraud almost never occurs and over 300,000 potential voters in Wisconsin were estimated to lack a qualifying form of ID when the law was challenged in court.
“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-imperson fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens,” wrote Justice Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in an opinion urging the court to reconsider a decision upholding the state's photo ID law. (The Supreme Court stayed that decision, so the law was not in effect for the 2014 midterm elections, but the court declined to hear a challenge to the law last year.)
Despite Walker’s claim that the state’s photo ID law “works just fine,” some voters were actually prevented from voting on Tuesday, with the burdens disproportionately felt by low-income voters, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities and students.
When Switlick went to the DMV to obtain an ID card to vote, he brought his birth certificate with him, along with a utility bill, property tax statement and Medicare card. He has voted in Wisconsin since he was 21. He’s now 67.
“I went there and went up to the counter and the gentleman behind the counter said ‘This stuff is no good, you’ve got to have a picture ID card, how do I know who you say you are?’”
Switlick’s documents proved his name and date of birth, his Wisconsin residency and his citizenship. But they didn’t prove his identity -- he needed a piece of identification with his photo and signature, like a passport. But he had none of the acceptable documents.
“How do I get an ID card if I don’t have an ID card?” Switlick asked. “They should make it easier to vote, not see how hard they can make it. I just thought it would be easy enough that I could walk in there … I was frustrated even when I went there because they don’t know how to deal with people who are visually impaired, they’re usually dealing with people who can drive.”
Switlick ultimately decided to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with a provisional ballot; he’s hoping to get an ID to make his ballot count before the Friday afternoon deadline.
Kari Venteris of Madison also had to vote with a provisional ballot Tuesday. The 41-year-old has a disability that makes it difficult for her to get around; she moved from Illinois to Wisconsin in December and hadn’t yet had a chance to get a Wisconsin driver’s license. When a friend told her that she actually couldn’t vote with her Illinois license, she contacted Wisconsin’s chapter of Election Protection. Her birth certificate is in Illinois, so she wasn’t able to get an acceptable form of photo ID before the primary.
Election Protection advised her to go to her polling place anyway, so she did: there, she registered to vote using her Illinois license. A poll worker gave her a slip to get a regular ballot, but she knew submitting a regular ballot, rather than a provisional ballot, would be illegal under Wisconsin law.
“What country am I in, where I’m thinking, ‘Do I vote or face imprisonment or a fine, or do I walk away and not vote?’” she said. “It’s so unreal, in the U.S., to be worried about the ramifications of voting, when the polling officials say it’s fine but I know it’s not.”
Venteris is taking a bus back to Illinois Wednesday afternoon to get her birth certificate, a three-hour round trip. She estimated that the cost of getting the provisional ballot she cast to count before Friday’s deadline will add up to roughly $100.
Ben Krause-Decorah, a 22-year-old member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who lives in Waukesha, interacted with some confused or uneducated poll workers when he went to vote Tuesday. He presented his tribal identification card, which Wisconsin considers an acceptable form of photo ID to vote, but the poll workers he interacted with asked him if his ID was "real" and requested that he use his driver's license instead, saying it would be "easier for everyone" if he didn't try to use his tribal ID.
While Republicans say that the relatively high turnout seen in Wisconsin Tuesday shows that the photo ID requirement wasn’t too onerous for voters, civil rights advocates say there’s no way to know how many potential voters stayed home because they didn’t think they had the right type of identification, perhaps because the state’s legislature failed to appropriate the funds it said it would to broadcast educational advertisements about the law.
The unspoken understanding shaping debates about photo identification is that such laws are passed to disenfranchise those voters who are more likely to vote for Democrats. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) articulated that position explicitly on Tuesday, arguing that the Republican presidential nominee would have a better chance of defeating whomever the Democratic nominee is in Wisconsin because the photo ID law will result in fewer Democrats voting.
“[Grothman] seems to have gone off script," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which runs the Election Protection program. "But he confirmed what we’ve always known, which is that voter ID is a tool used to promote voter suppression.”