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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Wisconsin students take aim at Voter ID Bill
They fear GOP's attempt to fight fraud will suppress turnout
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Sam Polstein: 'What they are doing is against the wishes of a vast majority of students.'
Sam Polstein: 'What they are doing is against the wishes of a vast majority of students.'
Credit:Alison Bauter

Students at the UW-Madison don't always bother to vote, even when it's easy for them. Now the GOP wants to make this harder, and students are gearing up for a fight.

"I believe the something that the Associated Students of Madison [ASM], and students in general, need to strongly denounce and actively fight," says Sam Polstein, co-sponsor of a UW-Madison student council resolution protesting the proposed changes.

Polstein and others on campus believe these changes, part of pending legislation requiring photo ID, will prevent thousands of voters - including hundreds of students - from being able to vote. And he's not alone.

Across the Madison campus and statewide, students are rising to defend themselves against disenfranchisement under the Wisconsin Voter ID Bill (SB-6).

Although Republicans claim the changes are needed to reduce fraud, Democrats say the real goal is to suppress the vote among their core constituencies, including students.

Most vulnerable are those without driver's licenses or state IDs. As the bill is drafted, neither a university-issued photo ID nor a government passport will do the trick.

Critics say a historically penniless student population is unlikely to hand over the $28 it costs to get a state of Wisconsin driver's license - especially since out-of-state students don't need one to drive. Moreover, most students would prefer to spend the money on groceries, textbooks or a few cases of Pabst.

Under the bill, an eligible voter can get a state ID for free "if the elector specifically requests not to be charged." But obtaining a state ID with one's current address would still be difficult for a student population that annually migrates between addresses.

"Many students," reads Polstein's resolution, "will be unwilling to go through the hassle and expense of getting a new license for their school address and subsequently getting a new license every time they move."

Polstein's "Resolution to Protect Student Voting Rights" formally declares student government's opposition to the bill, saying it "would create needless barriers to voting and impede on the democratic process."

Polstein's resolution, which unanimously passed last week's student council, will be delivered to the offices of Gov. Scott Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Although the resolution calls on lawmakers to reform the current bill, Polstein won't be surprised if that doesn't happen.

"If [the current bill passes] we won't be surprised, as this legislation has been on the fast track since its introduction," he says, adding, "I hope my resolution will at least serve as a statement to the leaders of this new state government that what they are doing is against the wishes of a vast majority of students from each side of the political spectrum."

But student resistance to the Voter ID bill doesn't stop there.

Polstein promises that should the legislation, as expected, be signed into law by Gov. Walker in time for the April election, ASM will lead the charge to educate students on the changed requirements.

"The education campaign will definitely happen," he says. "Right now it's kind of fuzzy as to what exactly you need to vote under the legislation. A big part of our job would be to educate students on what's actually in the bill."

Polstein says ASM has always pushed students to register, and must now tailor these efforts to adapt to the new legislation. Besides the education campaign, Polstein has other proposals in mind, including possibly chartering a bus to take students to the DMV.

"If [SB-6] passes," Polstein says, "ASM will be devoted to helping students get the identification they need to vote. We will also work tirelessly to keep student turnout at or near the level it currently is."

Lindsay Bembenek, president of the Wisconsin Student Lobby, hopes it doesn't come to that. She and others are still meeting with lawmakers in the hopes of amending the bill before it passes.

"The state legislation," insists Bembenek, "should include language to recognize UW-issued student IDs as part of the state-issued identification."

For the past few weeks, members of WSL's Student Lobby Corps have been approaching legislators with their concerns. WSL executive director Rachel Vesco, a junior at the UW-Madison, says the response has been positive: "They recognized that student voting was important."

Bembenek says the student lobbyists hope to work across the campus aisle, enlisting the support of UW's College Democrats and Republicans. The College Democrats are expected to issue a statement against the bill this week.

"Regardless of partisanship, voting restrictions affect all students," says Bembenek. "The College Republicans have a vested interest in the legislation too, so we wanted to include them in our conversation."

It may be a disappointing conversation.

"We definitely support Senate Bill 6," says Johnny Koremenos, second vice chair of the UW College Republicans. "It's kind of a crazy thing that Wisconsin does allow out-of-state students to vote in its elections."

Koremenos argues that many other states require photo ID and ask that out-of-state students vote by absentee ballot. "I think we need to step in line with the rest of the country."

Bembenek says WSL also plans to contact students on other campuses across the state and encourage them to join their cause.

Two campuses, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Superior, have already independently passed resolutions against the Voter ID bill.

Should the bill pass, Bembenek says WSL will continue to advocate for students' voting rights: "We want to make sure students have a right to vote where they actually live."

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