"This is what voter suppression looks like."
Those are the words on the final title card in the video [embedded below] shot by a Wisconsin woman documenting her experience at the DMV in Madison last week. The video purports to illustrate the ridiculous extra, and invasive, efforts many previously-legal voters in the Badger State will now likely face in order to exercise their right to vote in the state since the passage of the GOP majority's newly enacted voter suppression laws.
In this case, the woman was trying to help her son get a free Photo ID at the DMV, as is his right under the new statutes. At first she was told the charge for the supposedly-free ID would be $28, and that was only after she convinced a clerk that there had been enough "activity" in her son's bank account, as used by the clerk to determine whether or not he actually resided in the state.
And that was for an affluent white resident. If you're a homeless person in WI, as the woman's interview with another clerk in the video suggests, you can pretty much just forget about being able to vote at all under the new law.
An official at the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation confirmed to The BRAD BLOG that those seeking the Photo ID for free must actually know to request it during the application process, as required by the language, she told us, in the new state statute...
Back in 2008, just after the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed, for the first time, a polling place Photo ID restriction to take affect in the state of Indiana, we ran down the absurd hoops one was required to leap through in order to simply cast a legal vote if one did not already own an acceptable state-issued Photo ID on Election Day.
The steps are particularly absurd and onerous for those who don't already have a drivers license in the first place or, for example, who might need a walker to get around at all, like some of the 80 and 90 year old nuns who were turned away from the polls that year without being able to cast a normal vote as they had for decades prior, in the exact same place, without a problem.
Since then, similarly disenfranchising polling place restrictions have been instituted on legal voters by Republicans in order to suppress the votes of largely Democratic-leaning constituencies --- such as students, the elderly, minorities and urban-dwellers --- in a number of states across the nation, including Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas, Texas and, most recently, Wisconsin.
Making matters still worse in the Badger State, Republican Gov. Scott Walker --- who is likely to face a recall election next year on the heels of 9 state Senators facing recalls this Summer in the wake of the new GOP law revoking rights for citizens to collectively bargain with the government --- is now working to make it even harder for Wisconsinites who don't have a state-issued Photo ID to get one at the DMV.
According to Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress, the Walker administration is now finalizing a plan to limit the operational hours for DMVs in Democratic areas of the state, while (surprise, surprise!) extending hours in some Republican districts.
But that's not all. As you'll see in the following video, taken by a Wisconsin resident trying to help her son get a state-issued Photo ID from the DMV, there are still more of the maddening hoops the state is now forcing legal voters to jump through in order to exercise their franchise. Among those hoops --- which back in the day when we had a Constitutionally representative democracy would have been considered an unconstitutional poll tax --- is the $28 fee that citizens are charged to get their ID in the first place unless they happen to know the secret password, or check the right box, in order to get one for free, as they are entitled to according to the new law.
Back in the days before the modern day Republican War on Voting began anew, the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed similar barriers to voting where a voter might have been forced to pay as little as $1.50 in order to cast their vote. That was then, of course, while this is 2011...
As noted at the beginning of the DMV video seen above and at the WI Dept.of Transportation (WisDOT) website, in order to obtain a WI Photo ID for voting, one must provide:
Among the evidence for residency presented by the woman and her son in the video was a copy of his bank statement. After examining it, the DMV clerk questioned whether there was enough "activity" in the account.
"How much activity has he had?," the clerk says, while closely examining the son's personal statement. "I need to show...is that checking account or is that savings?...But does he show activity? Does he use it? We need to show activity, not just a balance."
The woman points the clerk towards an Amazon purchase and he then asks, "Just one?". Nonetheless, after further examination, according to the video, the clerk decides there is enough activity to send the woman and her son on to the next station at the service center.
The BRAD BLOG asked Kristina Boardman, Director of WisDOT's Bureau of Field Services, whether the inquiry seen on the video tape, including the requirement for evidence of bank account "activity", was appropriate and normal.
She says that it was not. She explained that the clerk seen on the video tape "was a temporary person and they were incorrect. That staff person has been advised."
"I think there was a time that anybody could just go and set up a back account and it didn't necessarily prove that they were a resident," explained Boardman. "That is not the case any more."
"I know that everything that's online has been updated in the last couple of weeks," she added when we asked when the policy was changed, and whether it was before or after this video was recently released on YouTube. "The policy itself was changed about a year ago," she said.
The woman on the tape then inquires what might happen if her son was homeless and didn't even have a bank account.
"I haven't dealt with that yet," the temporary clerk responds, directing her to "the full time employees" as the ones who'd need to answer the question.
At "Station #2" her son's photo is taken before she proceeds to "Station #3" where the son's passport appears to be inspected by the next clerk, who then asks for a social security card. He doesn't have it with him. In the alternative, "proof of Wisconsin residency" is requested, and once again they give this clerk the son's bank statement.
"This clerk examines the bank statement and finds it acceptable," a title card in the video says, followed by another which reads: "I find this 'reading of the bank statement' to be an invasion of privacy."
The next title says, "The clerk automatically jots down '$28' on the application," before "He then notices that the 'special box' on the form has been checked, so he crosses off the amount due."
Here is the pertinent section of the form they would have been filling out, as linked for us [PDF] by WisDOT's Boardman:
You'll note the "special box" in question is the one that reads:
Apparently, the DMV clerk did not ask the son whether the application was for a Photo ID needed for voting, or whether it was to be an ID needed for a different purpose. The son had to simply notice the "special box" on the form himself, or he would have been assessed a $28 fee. That he was not asked, "bothers" the woman, according to the next title in the video. "How many people will forget to check the 'special box' (or won't notice it all)?"
"They will either be charged $28 (a poll tax), or will go away without getting a Voter ID," she contends.
We then hear her ask the clerk whether or not someone who simply said they needed a state ID card, "would they know it was free if it was for voting?"
The clerk answers directly: "Unless they tell us it's for voting, we charge them."
After further inquiry as to why --- since the ID is supposed to be free for voting, according to the new law --- the clerk wouldn't simply tell the applicant that "right from the start, a voter ID card is free?" The clerk responds, "They're the same card. So unless you come in and specifically request it, we charge you for it."
"Let's say you're 20 and going on a trip," he continued in his explanation. "Ya know, you may not vote, so we're still gonna charge you for that card."
"Well, would you ask them?," she wonders. "Would you say 'Is this for voting, or...'?"
"Only if they check the box," he replies. "It's, ya know, one of 'em where, they shouldn't even really be doing any of it. But it's just one of 'em where, ya know, they wanted to make this law, and now it's gonna affect a lot of people. So, if it's for voting we do it for free, but if it's not, we don't know that they're going to use it for voting."
The woman continues to wonder why they don't ask people. Her son wonders why there isn't "a sign" posted or something.
"They put it on here," the clerk says, referring to the form, "and that satisfies the state statute, so I can't really answer that question."
After requesting to speak to a supervisor about it, one comes over and is asked again whether they notify applicants about their right to receive the ID for free. "They need to ask for it. It's something that is available, but they should ask for it," he responds.
"The instruction is that if someone comes in and says they need an ID card to go and vote, then it's free --- if it is an original issuance or a renewal. If someone comes in and they've lost their ID and need a replacement, we have to charge for it," says the supervisor. "Our direction is to let them ask."
"Who gave that direction?," the woman asks. "Well, it's from The Powers That Be," he responds.
"And who would that be?" she pressed, before being given the name and phone number of Tracy Howard, "the next step in my chain of command," says the clerk about Howard, who he identifies as his "Regional Operations Manager."
We called the number for Howard as given by the DMV supervisor and left a voice message inquiring as to why applicants aren't specifically asked if the ID will be needed for voting, and whether it was a specific directive that they should not do so.
We were called back by Boardman, Howard's superior, after she said our query was sent up the chain of command to her.
Boardman explained that "the statutory language specifically puts the onus on the customer for getting the ID for free for voting. We try to make that as easy as possible, that this is indeed an option by including a checkbox on the application."
She read the pertinent section of Wisconsin Statute 343.50 (5) to us over the phone --- the part which says that the ID card will be free if "the applicant requests that the identification card be provided without charge for purposes of voting":
"All they have to do is check that box and we honor it," continued Boardman, referring to the application. "We're implementing the law as written."
The woman in the video then asks the supervisor about how they'd provide an ID "if someone's homeless?"
"They still have to provide us with an address," he tells her, "even if it's the shelter."
"Well, how do they show you if they don't have a bank account...How do they...I was asked for a bank statement?"
"Homeless is a very unique situation," he responds. "A homeless person is not gonna have any of that stuff. If they have a letter from the shelter where they're staying, saying they are a resident in good standing at the shelter, we can accept that as an exception. Or proof..."
The DMV supervisor's remarks are cut short, as the woman explains on another title card that her "camera's memory card is full." She goes on to explain that the she was told the letter from a shelter where a homeless person is staying "has to be on shelter letterhead," leading her to wonder "how many homeless shelters have official letterhead."
When she then asked about a homeless person who "lives on the street rather than in a shelter," she says she was told that person would still need to provide "acceptable proof of Wisconsin residency," or they wouldn't be able to obtain a voter ID.
Finally, the woman goes on to note that "an estimated 300,000 eligible voters in the state...do not have a driver's license," according to University of Wisconsin political science professor David Canon --- "a number disproportionately made up by elderly, minorities, the disabled and students" --- before she wonders how the DMV plans to accommodate all of them who will need "a Voter ID".
"This is what voter suppression looks like," she contends as the last statement on the final title card of her video.
According to a 2005 study [PDF] by John Pawasarat of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Employment and Training Institute, described as "a first-time analysis of drivers license issues based on the racial/ethnicity of drivers and unlicensed adults in Wisconsin," it's not just homeless Wisconsinites who are likely to have trouble voting when the new Photo ID restriction law takes full effect in 2012. The elderly, ethnic minorities, and the state's sizable college population are also among those likely to be hardest hit, all demographics who tend to lean Democratic in the state of Wisconsin (and other states where such laws are also being implemented.)
For example, some of the report's findings include [emphasis in original]:
Minorities and poor populations are the most likely to have drivers license problems. Less than half (47 percent) of Milwaukee County African American adults and 43 percent of Hispanic adults have a valid drivers license compared to 85 percent of white adults in the Balance of State (BOS, i.e., outside Milwaukee County). The situation for young adults ages 18-24 is even worse --- with only 26 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Hispanics in Milwaukee County with a valid license compared to 71 percent of young white adults in the Balance of State.
Only 65 percent of adults in Milwaukee County have a current and valid Wisconsin drivers license, compared to 83 percent of adults in the Balance of State.
At UWM, Marquette University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a total of 12,624 students live in residence halls, but only 280 (2 percent) have drivers licenses with these dorms' addresses.
Over all, notes the AFL-CIO, in summarizing from the same report:
- 23 percent of Wisconsinites over the age of 65.
- 17 percent of white men and women.
- 55 percent of African American males and 49 percent of African American women.
- 46 percent of Hispanic men and 59 percent of Hispanic women.
- 78 percent of African American males age 18-24 and 66 percent of African American women age 18-24.
Good luck with that hoop jumping between now and 2012, Wisconsinites, as your rights continued to be stripped by the new Republican-majority regime.
UPDATE 7/27/11: I covered this story, along with a bit of additional background context, on my Pacifica Radio show on L.A.'s KPFK today. Here is that audio version of this story...