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Is the proof in the picture? Bill would require photo IDs at polls

Sheila Harsdorf1 / 2
Cindy Campbell2 / 2

Proposed legislation to require citizens to show photo identification each time they vote is either a good idea or a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, say local poll workers.

The bill, introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature last week, mirrors Indiana's voter ID law which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, said co-sponsor Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.

This isn't intended to be a process to discourage or prevent people from voting, it's an attempt to make sure a voter is who he says he is, said Harsdorf.

The ID could be a driver's license, a military ID or a state-issued ID card.

"The important thing is that we do what we can to ensure the integrity of our elections," said Harsdorf. "One fraudulent vote negates an honest vote."

While she didn't question the motives behind the bill, St. Croix County Clerk Cindy Campbell hopes state lawmakers take their time with it.

"It's just too much in too little time," said Campbell, citing the push to have a new law in place before the spring elections.

Now voters just have to provide proof of residence, which could be a driver's license or utility bill, to register. If they are already registered, they have only to announce their name and address when they come to vote.

In fact, election clerks can't at this point ask for identification, photo or otherwise, said Campbell.

She said a quick change would be confusing for both voters and poll workers.

"If (voters) don't bring their ID, then what?" wondered Campbell.

"I just hope the bugs are worked out before they pass it," she said. Campbell encouraged lawmakers to try to imagine every scenario poll workers may encounter.

She wonders how the new law would deal with absentee voters, military voters or low income people who don't have photo ID.

"I can see both sides," said town of Clifton Clerk Judy Clement-Lee, who has no strong feelings on the bill either way. But, she said, the change will be confusing and will slow the voting process.

"(Previously) when we requested a photo ID, there wasn't a problem because they knew they had to bring it," said Clement-Lee.

Until a couple of years ago, poll workers could ask for identification, but now they can't. Changing to requiring a photo ID can't help but be confusing, she said.

Now checking in a voter is simply a matter of finding the name on the list of registered voters, said Clement-Lee. "It's really quick."

It will take time for voters to dig out their IDs and for poll workers to examine each card, said Clement-Lee.

Campbell polled the municipal clerks in her county and got mixed responses from those who replied.

Some definitely opposed the bill. "We have to make voting easier, not more difficult," said one clerk.

But another called requiring a photo ID "a no-brainer," pointing out that a photo ID is required to board a plane and apply for food stamps.

Is suspected voter fraud much of a problem?

"Not here," replied Campbell.

Under the current law, a poll worker can challenge a voter if there is reason to believe he or she is ineligible to vote or to vote in a particular ward. There are a series of questions to ask and forms to fill out in that situation, but she's never had a clerk use that process, said Campbell.

"We're just a small township so it's not a big thing," agreed Clement-Lee. "A lot of these people we just know."

In small towns, election workers know most of their neighbors, so voter fraud is less likely to occur, but it's more of a problem in more urban areas, said Harsdorf.

Hearings on this bill haven't been held yet, but during earlier hearings on similar legislation, people told of coming to vote and being turned away, said Harsdorf. They were told someone had already used their name to vote.

Will the ID requirement cause hardships?

"I don't think it will be a big problem (to require a photo ID)," said Clement-Lee. "I don't think that there are many people that don't have a driver's license, but I don't know."

In response to some concerns expressed by clerks, Harsdorf said it's her understanding that nursing home residents will be exempt from the photo ID requirement and those voting absentee can meet the standard by including a photo copy of their ID.

She predicted that most concerns will be addressed when the Legislature holds hearings on the bill.

"I think there's an intent to make this a bill that will work," said Harsdorf.

Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed a voter photo ID bill three times during his administration, but Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has said he would sign the law.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.