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With less than two months before the general election, Wisconsin voting rights advocates continue to express concern about citizens’ access to ballots in the state.
For some, the issue is getting a photo ID.
For others, the issue is getting special credentials, because a photo ID cannot be obtained.
And for some, the issues involve language barriers that complicate registering to vote, getting to the polls and casting ballots in an election that will decide the next president, as well as representation in Congress, the state Legislature and more.
Got ID? Got credentials?
Some voting rights advocates are concerned that people eligible to vote may not know the Republican-imposed state mandate for a photo ID is in effect for the general election.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation offers free photo IDs for voting, but Democrats complained that people who lack the proper documents, such as birth certificates, can’t obtain them.
The DOT responded to those complaints in 2014 with a process that allows people to petition the agency for a free ID.
Petitioners must show documents proving their identity and Wisconsin residency; if the agency determines the petitioner is an eligible voter, he or she gets an ID.
Last year, the DOT modified the process again to allow anyone who enters the petition process to vote using a special credential issued through the mail.
But that move raised concerns that the DOT would be unlikely to get voting credentials to people who lack photo identification on Election Day in time to ensure their ballots will count.
Ann Jacobs, a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said during a meeting in late August that while people can cast a provisional ballot without credentials, they would have only until the Friday after the election to satisfy the identification requirement.
Since the credentials likely wouldn’t arrive in the mail until the following week, their provisional ballots would be invalidated, Jacobs said.
“Someone who lacks ID on Election Day can’t vote,” she said.
Jacobs suggested that the DOT issue credentials to petitioners over the counter.
But commission spokesman Reid Magney said the DOT doesn’t do that because it needs several days to try to verify the documents that petitioners provide.
DOT spokeswoman Patricia Mayers had no immediate comment on Jacobs’ concerns, the AP reported.
Meanwhile, state election officials have approved mailing postcards to more than a million people telling them how to register to vote, marking the largest mailing outreach effort they’ve ever attempted.
Legislators passed a law earlier this year requiring Wisconsin to join a multi-state consortium, the Electronic Registration Information Center, to identify eligible voters who haven’t registered.
The consortium requires members to reach out to eligible people who may not be registered every two years before Oct. 1.
ERIC is supplying the state with a list of those who haven’t registered by matching registration records with lists of driver license and state-issued photo ID holders. Those on the list should receive a postcard telling them how to register.
The ERIC mailing is expected to cost about $260,000. Up to half of the cost will be funded with a grant of up to $150,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Federal dollars will cover remaining costs.
It was unclear, as WiG went to press, whether any of the mailings would be in Spanish or bilingual.
Removing language access barriers to voting is an issue of both local and national concern.
“Americans speak many languages, and election officials are essential to ensuring the views and votes of minority-language speakers are a part of our political process,” said Adam Ambrogi, program director for the D.C.-based Democracy Fund Action. “Of the 8,000 election jurisdictions nationwide, many face complicated challenges in meeting legal requirements and diverse voter needs.”
Earlier this summer, DFA and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission brought together election officials, voting advocates and language experts to discuss how best to provide information to U.S. voters whose primary language is not English.
The forum provided the opportunity for the EAC to show its BeReady16 resources, including a glossary translating many election-related words and phrases into about a dozen languages and a manual for election workers.
Attendees also reviewed the federal mandates for serving voters who speak languages other than English, including requirements for translating voting materials, assisting voters at the polls and designing minority-language ballots.
Under Section 203 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, nearly 250 jurisdictions across the country must meet voter language requirements other than English. Milwaukee is one such jurisdiction; the city must guarantee language access for Spanish speakers.
“I think the city has tried really hard to comply with this requirement,” said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Wisconsin.
Nonetheless, the attorney — who works in the ACLU’s race, poverty and civil liberties project — raised two basic concerns about language access in the state.
First, she said, language access should be a priority for jurisdictions regardless of whether it is mandated by the Voting Rights Act.
“We think it’s a good practice whether it is Kenosha or Racine or some other city,” Rotker said.
And second, she’s concerned that not all state election materials intended for use by all voters, including in Milwaukee, are bilingual.
“Some of the state materials and forms are translated, but it’s pretty clear they are not all translated,” she said. “And that’s a problem. We are somewhat concerned about that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Census data show about 4.4 million people of voting age in Wisconsin. Of those, about 3.4 million are registered voters, according to Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney.