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Wisconsin's Voter ID Law: Are You Ready?

New law's implementation still uncertain

Feb. 8, 2012
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In two weeks, Wisconsin voters will be required to present a state-approved photo ID to cast a ballot in the Feb. 21 nonpartisan primary.

While the new voter ID requirement—passed last year by the Republican-led state Legislature—sounds straightforward, the nuts and bolts of implementing it are not.

And with three pending lawsuits challenging the law's constitutionality, it isn't certain that the voter ID law will survive court challenges.

Will Voter ID Combat Fraud?

Up until last year, Wisconsin had one of the most open voting systems in the country. Prospective voters had to present proof of residency when registering to vote, but voters only had to state their name and address when requesting a ballot. That policy, along with Election Day voter registration, helped to boost Wisconsin's voter participation.

That system changed last year, however, when Republicans were able to make good on their long-standing desire to enact a voter ID law. They argued that Wisconsin had “widespread voter fraud” that they said diluted legitimate voters' ballots. They argued that on-paper felons, double-voters, out-of-state residents and voters impersonating others were illegally participating in elections.

The problem for Republicans, however, is that there is little evidence of voter fraud in Wisconsin.

In 2005, then-Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann and then-Republican U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic (now Gov. Scott Walker's attorney) led an investigation into improper voting in the 2004 election, but that turned up scant evidence of fraud. Instead, they found some clerical errors and messy record-keeping.

In 2008, Republican state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen set up a statewide task force on voter fraud. But out of the 3 million votes cast in the November 2008 election, Van Hollen prosecuted a mere 14 improper voters, or about 0.0000046% of the electorate.

Creating Barriers to Voting

So will the new voter ID law crack down on this tiny amount of alleged fraud?

Not likely, since it won't prevent on-paper felons from voting illegally, nor will it stop double-voting or voter impersonation.

“Nothing in the new law would stop this,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Legal Director Laurence Dupuis.

What's more likely is that the voter ID law will disenfranchise between 5% and 10% of the state's voters, Dupuis said, since these potential voters lack an acceptable photo ID or would have to overcome huge barriers to obtain the underlying documents needed to receive an ID.

These potentially disenfranchised voters are primarily low-income residents, seniors, students, ethnic and racial minority voters and those with disabilities. Not surprisingly, these voters tend to support Democrats, who opposed the legislation.

These barriers are at the heart of three legal challenges that could strike down the new law either in its entirety or in part:

  • The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court alleging that the law is unconstitutional because lawmakers do not have the right to enact voting restrictions other than rules for residency, voter registration, absentee voting or excluding felons or persons who are found to be incompetent. The League argues that the voter ID law would impede the voting rights of legal voters who do not have certain types of identification, a restriction that the state constitution does not allow.

    “We're optimistic,” said the Wisconsin League's executive director, Andrea Kaminski, about the suit moving forward and striking down the law.
  • Voces de la Frontera and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court, arguing that the voter ID law illegally restricts the rights of minorities, students, veterans, people with disabilities and low-income voters.
  • The ACLU of Wisconsin and its allies have filed suit in federal court charging that the voter ID law would deprive Wisconsin citizens of their right to vote because it would create barriers to voting and charge an illegal poll tax on those who are trying to obtain a valid ID. Those most impacted are low-income voters, homeless voters, veterans, seniors and minorities.

The ACLU's Dupuis said the lawsuit could strike down the law in its entirety or the parts concerning the groups of voters who would most likely be deterred from voting.

What You Need to Do on Election Day

On Feb. 21, prospective voters will be asked to present an acceptable photo ID in order to cast a ballot. (For details, go to bringit.wisconsin.gov.)

If a voter does not have acceptable ID, he or she can cast a provisional ballot, which will be set aside. The voter will have to provide acceptable ID by the end of Friday, Feb. 24, in order for that ballot to be counted.

Dupuis said he was concerned about the provisional ballot system, since it would require these voters to obtain an acceptable ID within days—a highly unlikely event.

“This is not a good solution,” Dupuis said.

He noted that Indiana's new voter ID law allows voters to provide an affidavit explaining why they are unable to present a photo ID when voting. The Wisconsin law provides no such exemption.

The City of Milwaukee Election Commission will track the impact of the law on voters casting a ballot in the Feb. 21 primary election and report its findings to the Milwaukee Common Council.

Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Susan Edman said the city would provide greeters in polling places to help voters locate their correct ward—wards and polling sites may have changed with redistricting—and to comply with the voter ID law.

“There are a lot of changes with this election,” Edman said.

How to Vote on Feb. 21

The new Voter ID law isn't just about showing a valid photo ID at the polls. Here are some of the changes you need to know:

  • Bring a photo ID to the polls and be prepared to sign the poll book.

  • Verify your ward, district and polling place in the statewide voter database, since they may have changed in the recent redistricting process. Go to the General Accountability Board's website (gab.wi.gov) and click on Voter Public Access to verify your information. You can also contact your local municipal clerk.
  • If you want to request an absentee ballot, you must send a photocopy of your voter ID with your application. You're exempt from this requirement if you are indefinitely confined—for example, if you live in a nursing home. Feb. 16 is the last day you can request an absentee ballot.
  • The residency requirement has changed from 10 days to 28 days. If you have not lived in your current home for 10 days, you can vote in your former address' district.
  • In-person absentee dates have changed. In-person voting began on Feb. 6 and ends on Friday, Feb. 17. Voting resumes on Election Day, Tuesday, Feb. 21. You must present a voter ID to cast a ballot.
  • Prospective voters may register to vote through Feb. 17 with a photo ID and proof of residency. They may not register to vote on Monday, Feb. 20, but can register at the polls on Election Day. Neighbors and friends may not “vouch” for a prospective voter who does not have proof of residency.
  • On Tuesday, Feb. 21, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.


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