Longtime political activist Lorraine Hawkinson, 88, has been worrying a lot since Wisconsin adopted a strict voter ID law (PDF).
Starting next year, voters will have to present a government-issued photo identification card in order to cast a ballot. Acceptable IDs include a driver's license or a non-driver ID card issued by the state Division of Motor Vehicles. Other forms of identification include a U.S. passport or an ID card issued by the U.S. military or a federally recognized Indian tribe.
Hawkinson, who lives in a farmhouse in Dunn, no longer drives, so she plans to hire someone to drive her the 20 miles from her home to Madison, where she'll apply for an ID card. It's inconvenient, she said, but she's concerned that many other Wisconsinites will face a greater burden.
"People in our rural counties might live 40, 50 miles or more from their nearest motor vehicle office," she said, "and many are only open a few hours a week — if that."
The legislature set aside money for the DMV to provide driver's license and ID card services for at least 20 hours a week in all 72 counties — only 30 of them have it now. But the new DMV facilities will not open until late January. Photo IDs will be required for the primary elections in February 2012.
Nancy Riggs, 79, of Fort Atkinson, is also worried about the law's impact. "I'm so afraid this law could affect the voting rights of people my age and older," she said. "Especially those who are frail and homebound or live far from a motor vehicle office."
A 2005 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee estimated that nearly 180,000 Wisconsinites 65 and older do not have a driver's license or official photo ID.
Wisconsin is one of seven states — up from two at the beginning of this year — that require voters to show a photo ID. Seven other states ask for a photo ID but permit people to vote if they have certain other documents. In 16 states, voters must show some proof of identity such as a utility bill that includes the voter's name and address.
The photo ID requirement was one of several changes contained in a sweeping election reform law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, R. Sponsors said the law was necessary to reduce voter fraud.
Other provisions include:
- Voters will no longer be allowed to vote a straight party ticket by simply making one indication of which party's candidates they prefer. Studies have shown that a significant number of older people favor straight party voting.
- Voters will have to reside in their ward or election district at least 28 days before the election. Previously the requirement was 10 days.
- Voters will no longer be able to vote on the day before the election. Instead, in-person absentee ballots must be cast by 5 p.m. the Friday before the election.
- Voters applying for absentee ballots other than in person must enclose a copy of proof of identification or other authorized document with their application.
- Voters who reside in nursing homes or other community-based residential facilities where special voting deputies are sent do not need a photo ID.
Because of these significant changes, AARP and other organizations are mobilizing to educate voters about the new requirements for obtaining a photo ID.
Helen Marks Dicks, AARP Wisconsin advocacy director, said voters having difficulty getting to a DMV office to obtain a voter ID should contact AARP Wisconsin at 1-866-448-3611 toll-free or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dicks said AARP is working with other organizations that will provide transportation and assistance. She advises all eligible voters to ask for a free ID card to avoid being charged the usual $28 fee.
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Barbara Abel is a freelance writer based in Wauwatosa, Wis.