County and municipal clerks are in a quandary over which state rules will be in place when voters come to the polls on April 3.
After months of preparing poll workers and voters for changes in state voting laws, they are now uncertain what to expect at the presidential primary in less than three weeks.
“We’ve all been trained and we all have materials that stress, ‘State it, Show it, Sign it,'” said Waupaca County Clerk Mary Robbins Will when describing recent changes in state law regarding the voting process. “Now, it seems the middle part has been taken out.”
Voter ID in court
In May 2011, the Wisconsin Legislature passed and Governor Scott Walker signed Act 23 into law.
The law, which took effect in February 2012, when some counties held spring primaries, required citizens to bring photo ID with them to the polling place in order to vote.
In October 2011, the League of Women Voters sued to stop enforcement of the law. In December, a state lawsuit was filed against Walker by the Milwaukee Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
On Tuesday, March 6, Dane County Judge David Flanagan issued a temporary injunction in the NAACP’s case. The injunction halted enforcement of the new law’s requirement that voters present photo ID at the April 3 elections. A hearing on the case is set for April 16.
In his 11-page decision, Flanagan noted that with the passage of Act 23, “Wisconsin now has the benefit and the burden of the single most restrictive voter eligibility law in the United States.”
The judge cited evidence presented by Dr. Kenneth Meyer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that more than 220,000 eligible voters do not possess valid ID under the new law.
Flanagan also noted that the plaintiffs presented affidavits describing the difficulties that 40 citizens encountered when trying to obtain valid voter ID.
Flanagan said the affidavits “offer a picture of carousel visits to government offices, delay, dysfunctional computer systems, misinformation and significant investment in time to avoid being turned away at the ballot box. This is burdensome, all the more for the elderly and the disabled.”
Of the 40 people whose experiences obtaining valid voter ID were recounted in the affidavits, 19 of them had to pay between $14 and $36.50 in order to obtain the necessary documentation for their ID, even though the Department of Motor Vehicles will provide free photo IDs upon request.
Among the affidavits was the story of 84-year-old Ruthelle Frank, who is a lifelong resident of Brokaw, Wis., and has served on her town board since 1996.
“She has voted in every election over the past 64 years but she does not have a voter ID card. She located her birth certificate but her name was misspelled. She was advised to obtain a certified copy of the incorrect birth certificate and try to use that to obtain a voter ID card,” Flanagan said.
He also observed that investigations by both the city of Milwaukee and the state attorney general’s office “have produced extremely little evidence of fraud and that which has been uncovered, improper use of absentee ballots and unqualified voters would not have been prevented by the photo identification requirements of Act 23.”
Although he has not made a decision on the law itself, Flanagan issued the injunction on the possibility that the law will be found in violation to the state constitution’s guarantee that U.S. citizens in Wisconsin have the right to vote.
“The scope of the impairment has been shown to be serious, extremely broad and largely needless,” Flanagan said in his decision. “There is no doubt that the plaintiffs have shown a very substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”
On Friday, March 9, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked the court to stay the injunction. He has promised to appeal the injunction in time for the April 3 election.
The Wisconsin Republican Party filed a formal complaint against Flanagan with the state judicial commission. The party claims Flanagan is biased because he signed a petition for Walker’s recall.
On Monday, March 12, Judge Richard Niess issued a permanent injunction against requiring photo ID. Presiding over the suit brought by the League of Women Voters, Niess ruled that requiring voters to show photo ID violates the state’s constitution.
The government may not disqualify an elector who possesses those qualifications on the grounds that the voter does not satisfy additional statutorily-created qualifications not contained in Article III (of the state constitution),” Niess said in his decision.
Chaos at the polls?
“I would just like to see it resolved,” Robbins Will said. “One way or the other, we just want to know what we’re supposed to do.”
Over a period of several days, the county clerk received three different memos from the state Government Accountability Board indicating how the injunction would impact voters. She is not certain which rules will be in effect when voters come to polling sites April 3.
As of Monday morning, March 12, all voter ID requirements under Act 23 are enjoined by court order.
The county clerk has scheduled 10 training session with poll workers throughout the county to begin March 15.
“There is a lot of preparation and work required before an election,” Robbins Will said.
Although most of the new voting rules under Act 23 will remain in effect regardless of the outcome of litigation, the voter ID requirement has led to changes in the instructions for absentee ballots that are already printed and scheduled to be mailed beginning March 14.
Under Act 23, citizens applying to vote by absentee ballot must provide photo ID when applying by mail or in-person. They must also include a photocopy of valid ID in the envelope with their ballot. The injunctions prohibit these requirements.
Robbins Will is not only uncertain which voting rules will be in place on April 3, she is uncertain which voting rules will be in effect when absentee ballots begin arriving at the offices of municipal clerks.
“We’re telling our clerks that they have to document and date everything so we know what law was in effect when it was done,” Robbins Will said.
Another change in state voting law that concerns Robbins Will involves late absentee ballots and provisional ballots.
Act 115, which was also enacted in 2011, changes the timelines for making the vote count official.
Prior to Act 23, citizens had to provide valid proof of residency. If they came to the polls without such proof, they could cast a provisional ballot. If they brought proof of residency to the clerk’s office by 4 p.m. the day after the election, their vote would be counted.
Under Act 23, citizens who do not have valid voter ID with them when they come to the polls may still cast a provisional ballot. They now have until 4 p.m. the following Friday to bring in valid ID.
Under the old law, the municipal poll workers usually had their local votes counted by the end of Tuesday night or very early Wednesday morning. Election inspectors at each town or city also served as that municipality’s board of canvassers, which makes the vote tally official, unless there were provisional ballots cast. Since there were seldom any provisional ballots cast in Waupaca County and never enough to change the outcome of an election, the unofficial results reported on Tuesday night were usually similar to the official results reported by the county Board of Canvassers, which was required by law to meet on the Thursday after the election.
Now, each municipality must convene a Board of Canvassers after 4 p.m. Friday or before 9 a.m. the Monday after an election if there are any provisional ballots or late absentee ballots.
“It’s costing us twice as much because now you have to convene the board of canvassers twice,” Robbins Will said.
The number of provisional ballots cast in each municipality must be also posted on election night.
Under Act 115, the county Board of Canvassers must meet no later than 9 a.m. the following Tuesday, a full week after the election.
“I think the voter ID requirement would have created more provisional ballots because some voters would have not brought their ID on election day,” Robbins Will said.
Although there is currently an injunction halting implementation of the voter ID law, Robbins Will recommended that citizens who do not have photo ID begin collecting the documents now in order to have the ID in time for the April 3 election.
The deadline for late absentee ballots has also been changed.
Now, if an absentee ballot is postmarked by election day and received by 4 p.m. the Friday after the election, it must be counted.
On the other hand, the deadline for casting an absentee ballot in person at the municipal clerk’s office has been cut short from the Monday before the election to the Friday before the election.
In the April 3 election, absentee voting at the clerk’s office runs from Monday, March 19 through 5 p.m. Friday, March 30.
“We’re all at the mercy of the judges and the legislators,” New London Clerk Sue Tennie told the County Post. “It seems like everything is changing day-to-day.”
In addition to possible confusion over voter ID, Tennie is also facing recent redistricting changes in New London due to the 2010 census data.
There are five aldermanic districts in New London and a separate polling site for each district. Since the boundaries were changed due to redistricting, some New London voters will need to go to a different polling site this year.
“We sent out postcards to everyone, letting them know if their polling place has changed,” Tennie said.
She also noted that glitches in the state’s voter registration software have contributed to some confusion.
Tennie has increased the number of election officials from five at each poll to seven in an effort to avoid long lines on election day.
Tennie urged any New London resident with questions about voting to contact her at City Hall at 920-982-8500, ext. 101.