MILWAUKEE – State Sen. Mary Lazich was adamant: The bill Republicans were about to push through the Wisconsin state Senate, requiring that voters present identification at the polls, would do no harm.
“Not a single voter in this state will be disenfranchised by the ID law,” Lazich promised.
Five years later, in the first presidential election held under the new law, Gladys Harris proved her wrong.
By one estimate, 300,000 eligible voters in the state lacked valid photo IDs heading into the election; it is unknown how many people did not vote because they didn’t have proper identification. But it is not hard to find the dying woman whose license had expired or the recent graduate whose student ID was deficient – or Harris, who at 66 made her way to her polling place despite chronic lung disease and a torn ligament in her knee.
She had lost her driver’s license just before Election Day. Aware of the new law, she brought her Social Security and Medicare cards as well as a county-issued bus pass that displayed her photo.
Not good enough. She was turned away.
In the end, Wisconsin’s 10 Electoral College votes went to Republican Donald Trump, who defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by roughly 22,000 votes.
Under the state’s law, voters must present a driver’s license, state ID, passport, military ID, naturalization papers or tribal ID to vote. A student ID is acceptable only if it has a signature and a two-year expiration date. Those who do not have their ID can cast a provisional ballot that will be counted only if they return with the proper ID within a few days of the election.
Supporters have long argued such restrictions are needed to prevent voter fraud, while critics have decried the laws as undermining democracy and leading to the disenfranchisement of elderly and minority voters such as Harris.
“They prevented us from voting,” Harris said, simply.
When Alvin Mueller retired from his job as a maintenance worker, his wife Margie, 85, quit driving and let her license expire in 2010. The couple never had trouble voting in Plymouth, a small city about an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee where they’ve lived since they married 65 years ago.
But they hit a snag during early voting in November because Margie Mueller couldn’t cast a ballot with her expired license. The staff at the city clerk’s office said if she wanted to vote, she would need to get a new ID at a DMV office about 15 miles away in Sheboygan, the county seat.
That’s not unusual. The Brennan Center estimated that in the 10 states with voter ID laws in 2012, more than 10 million eligible voters lived more than 10 miles from a state ID-issuing office that is open more than two days a week.
Alvin Mueller said his wife was battling cancer in her lymph nodes and lungs. The prospect of making the trip was overwhelming. Not only did they not make the drive – Alvin decided if his wife couldn’t vote, he wouldn’t either.
It’s not like they were strangers to the poll workers: “We voted in Plymouth here for years. They know us and everything,” he said.
Catelin Tindall brought these things with her when she went to her precinct on Election Day: Her Ohio ID. Copies of her lease and utility bill. Her student ID from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Tindall, 24, had graduated in May, but wasn’t sure whether she would stay in Wisconsin so she kept her Ohio ID. Her student ID had her name, photo, a barcode, school logo and the most recent academic year she attended. But her student ID didn’t have an expiration date or say when it was issued, so she was forced to cast a provisional ballot.
She doesn’t have a car, so she took an Uber to the DMV to get an ID. She was told the ID would arrive by express mail the next day.
By then, she said, her work schedule at a Starbucks prevented her from going to the county clerk’s office with the ID so her vote would count.
“At the time I was thinking, `At least tried, so I can’t feel too bad about it,“’ she said.
She felt differently when Trump won Wisconsin.
“When I would see people saying, `What’s wrong with you Wisconsin, what are you doing?’ I would feel like, `Oh my God, I’m part of the problem,“’ Tindall said.
Overall, nearly 3 million people in Wisconsin voted last November, about 91,000 fewer than in 2012. Milwaukee, a power center for Democrats, reported that 41,000 fewer people voted there than in 2012.
Backers of the ID law say it was a success. The number of provisional ballots represented a tiny fraction of all ballots cast – less than one half of 1 percent, according to a report by the Wisconsin Election Commission.
Gov. Scott Walker was a major supporter of voter ID. He said recently that voter education is important to him and all elected officials.
Gladys Harris believes the state law did precisely what she thinks it was intended to do – prevent blacks like her who don’t have a car and rely on public transportation from voting.
For the last two decades, she has lived and voted in Wisconsin. Retired, she no longer drives and relies on public transit and friends to bring her to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store – and the voting booth.
She was distraught when she was told her vote would not be counted unless she went to a local DMV office for a replacement card and then return with it to a county election office.
“It was unfair, and I think it was cruel,” Harris said.
A few days after the election, Harris found her driver’s license. It had fallen between her mattress and headboard.
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