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Finance committee OKs money for voter ID outreach in state

Wisconsin election officials will get $250,000 to re-launch efforts to educate voters about photo identification requirements, state lawmakers decided Monday.

The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to release the money to the new state Elections Commission. That agency is considering television and radio commercials, smartphone ads, online videos, bus and Facebook ads, and pre-show ads at movie theaters that could run as early as this summer.

“We just want to make sure the integrity of the vote is there, and this is a good way to let everyone know there is voter ID because we’ve gone back and forth (on whether the requirement is in effect),” Sen. Alberta Darling, one of the committee’s co-chairs, said.

Committee Democrats complained $250,000 wasn’t nearly enough.

“We could be doing so much better than we are today,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton.

Photo ID has been one of the hottest political issues in Wisconsin since Republican legislators put it in state law in 2011. The GOP said the move would help combat election fraud, even though that’s never been a problem in Wisconsin. Democrats decried the requirement as an attempt to block liberal-leaning constituencies who may lack IDs, such as minorities and the poor, from voting.

The photo ID law calls for public education efforts. The state Government Accountability Board began an outreach campaign but suspended it in 2012 after a court challenge put the ID mandate on hold. A federal appellate court ultimately upheld the requirement in 2014.

The progressive group One Wisconsin Institute has challenged the law in another lawsuit, but that action is still pending and the ID requirement was in effect for the February state primary election and April’s presidential primary. Despite Democrats’ fears of suppressed turnout, nearly half of the state’s eligible voters cast a ballot in April, the largest percentage turnout since 1972.

Still, Rep. Chris Taylor, a Madison Democrat who sits on the finance committee, and the Wisconsin League of Women Voters pressed the GAB days after the presidential primary to ask for money to re-start the education campaign. Taylor and the league argued April turnout could have been even higher if more people had understood the law. The public needs to know the rules ahead of the November elections, they added.

The GAB asked the finance committee for the money in April. At first it looked unlikely the committee would go along. The panel’s supplemental fund contains only $267,000 for all state agencies through the end of June 2017. What’s more, Republicans have been upset with the GAB for assisting Milwaukee prosecutors in investigating whether Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups. Walker signed a bill last year that replaces the GAB with two partisan commissions, one to handle elections and one to deal with ethics violations, beginning in July.

But nearly 30 Assembly Republicans sent a letter to Darling and the other co-chair, Rep. John Nygren, urging them to release the money. Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, a member of the committee, issued a news release last week saying spending the money would be a waste. There’s no such thing as a statewide TV or radio campaign and the efforts would unfairly target urban populations, he said. He suggested sending a letter to everyone who hasn’t voted with a photo ID yet and lacks a state-issued ID.

About 254,000 registered voters lack a driver’s license or state identification card, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. A one-page mailing to a group that size would cost about $118,400. The bureau cautioned, however, that the mailing wouldn’t reach people who haven’t registered and some proportion of mailings would be returned as undeliverable.

Knudson relented during Monday’s meeting and joined Taylor in crafting a resolution to release the money on a one-time basis and put the new Elections Commission in charge of the campaign.

After the committee meeting, Knudson said he would encourage the Elections Commission to directly contact the affected voters by mail, which he contends is more effective than a statewide TV campaign. In his western Wisconsin district, he said, it is unlikely that Twin Cities television stations that cover the district would carry the ads.

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