The voter ID law passed last spring by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature was widely criticized for requiring that voters show a driver's license or other form of photo identification at the polls. These provisions are now under two court injunctions by judges who found that the photo ID requirements likely discriminate against minorities, the poor and the elderly.
Meanwhile, it is the bill's new residency requirements, largely lost in the controversy over photo ID, that are much more likely to keep students away from the polls in the upcoming June 5 recall elections for governor, lieutenant governor and four state Senate seats. Turnout among students, a voting bloc traditionally thought to favor Democrats, was already low in the May 8 recall primary.
The new rules require that voters live at an address for 28 days before being eligible to vote. Dorm leases for 6,900 students at UW-Madison end May 20, and many of the other students living off campus will leave for the summer around the same time. Do the math and the dilemma is clear: There is no time to reestablish residency to vote June 5.
"It's really screwy," says Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which filed one of the lawsuits challenging the voter ID law. "The only thing they can do legally if they move is to vote absentee in what is their current district. That is even if they are moving across the hall to a new apartment. It's really terrible."
But it turns out the residency rules are so complicated even Kaminski was a bit confused. Students who are moving out of the dorms or an off-campus apartment -- and who intend to return to Madison in the fall -- can also vote at a Madison polling location June 5 using the address they had as of May 8.
That's just one scenario, though. Students returning home for the summer who still consider their hometown their voting address can vote there June 5.
Only one group will not be allowed to vote either by absentee or at the polls: "If you are moving out of Wisconsin with no intention to return to Madison, you will not be eligible to vote in the June 5 election," Lori Berquam, dean of students at UW-Madison, warns students in a May 10 email.
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl also warns students not to "flip-flop" -- that is, students cannot register to vote in their hometown if they are already registered in Madison and intend to return in the fall. One voter was charged with felony voter fraud in 2011 for doing just that, she says.
"There are really complex issues here," says UW System spokesman David Giroux, who notes a "big chunk" of the 180,000 students in the system are eligible to vote.
He says administrators have worked with the Government Accountability Board to understand the issues involved. "They've continued to evolve as the GAB has interpreted these rules over the last several months."
One indication of this evolution can be found in the caveat at the bottom of the email from Berquam: "All of the information in this message is accurate as of May 10...."
The ACLU has prepared an information sheet (PDF) for students, and Republican and Democratic student groups, as well as nonpartisan voting groups, have also been doing outreach to students.
"We want to give them the information so they can exercise their civic right and comply with the law," says Giroux. "It's not easy."
Witzel-Behl says students and others need to be aware that the voter ID law also changed the rules for procuring absentee ballots.
Voters can still request them by email, but the clerk's office must now dispatch them by regular mail. Those requesting absentee ballots must also already be registered, says Witzel-Behl.
A handy website, Wisconsin Voter Public Access, can help voters track when a ballot request has been processed, when the ballot has been mailed, and when the completed ballot was received by the clerk's office.
"It's just peace of mind knowing that your ballot made it back and is ready to be counted," says Witzel-Behl.
She says the number of requests for absentee ballots received in recent weeks rivals a presidential election.
For those who want to vote early, the city clerk's office is offering extended hours most weekdays (8 a.m.-7 p.m.) starting on Monday, May 21. The office will also be open limited hours next weekend (May 26-27) and on Memorial Day.
The ballots, however, won't be printed until this weekend, after the GAB certifies the results of the May 8 primary. The four short weeks between primary and recall election have created the crunch.
"Typically, we would already have ballots in the office," says Witzel-Behl. "We could be sending them out in the mail at this point."