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Scott Walker signs Wisconsin Voter ID into law while protesters clamor for his recall

Credit:Jessica Opoien

Voices of protest

The Wisconsin Capitol was far from quiet when Gov. Scott Walker signed the controversial Voter ID bill (AB-7) into law Wednesday.

Protesters gathered in the rotunda and outside the entrance to the governor's office and cries of "Recall Walker!" "Whose house? Our house!" and "The people united will never be defeated" were heard through the office's closed doors during the ceremony.

"Our voices are a little rougher today," said R. Chris Reeder, who led Wednesday's Solidarity Sing-Along. The group, a partner of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, has gathered in the rotunda every weekday since March 11, singing songs associated with the labor and civil rights movements.

Wednesday's sing-along was louder than usual due to the protesters' opposition to the Voter ID bill. Reeder welcomed the addition of the louder, more raucous protesters who flanked the governor's office, because the singers have become the only protest voices heard in the Capitol most days.

"So many people have died for the progression of voting rights and for equal treatment," said C.J. Terrell, whose hands were bloody from drumming. "Regardless of where you stand in society, we should all have the right to be involved in our government. And right now, not only are they making it difficult to express our opinions here in a building that we pay taxes to keep open, they're now trying to make it harder for students to vote. They're making it harder for poor people to vote."

"Common sense"

Sen. Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan), who sponsored the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) have both referred to AB-7 in news releases as "commonsense" legislation and "reasonable" election reform. Walker agreed when he signed it into law.

"This is a logical requirement, which is why the overwhelming majority of people in this state, no matter what political party they're part of, support this legislation, and I'm proud to be signing the law today," Walker said.

However, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) expressed concern with the number of people who might face roadblocks in their efforts to vote, citing a Brennan Center for Justice study showing that as many as 12 percent of eligible voters nationwide do not have a government-issued photo ID.

A 2005 UW-Milwaukee study (PDF) found that, statewide, 59 percent of Hispanic females, 55 percent of African-American males, 49 percent of African-American females and 46 percent of Hispanic males, compared to 17 percent of white males and 17 percent of white females, were without a valid driver's license. The study also found that 23 percent of Wisconsin residents age 65 and older do not have a driver's license or a photo ID, and of this percentage, 70 percent are women.

"That's a high percentage of people that you're disenfranchising," Barca said. "We believe it's wrong -- whether you're homeless, whether you're disabled, you should not be disenfranchised. The state should not be putting up barriers that are, in some cases, impossible to overcome."

Barca was particularly concerned with the current level of access to Department of Motor Vehicles offices throughout the state.

An analysis by One Wisconsin Now showed that 26 percent of Wisconsin's 91 DMVs are open one day per month or less, more than half are open on a part-time basis and three Wisconsin counties are entirely without a DMV office.

Walker countered the criticism prior to signing the bill into law, citing Department of Transportation and Government Accountability Board statistics that put the number of registered voters in Wisconsin at 3.5 million, while 4.5 million state-issued driver's licenses or state-issued ID cards exist within the state.

Partisan dissonance

Between the Senate and the Assembly, Democrats offered 79 amendments to the bill, all of which failed.

"The goal was to try to avoid disenfranchising people; that was the goal of our amendments," Barca said.

Fitzgerald, however, referred to the Democrats' efforts as "extreme rhetoric and delay tactics from the minority" in a news release.

"The dignity of the institution -- and the results of the election -- used to matter to both the majority and the minority party," Fitzgerald said in the statement. "Today, the Democrats made it clear they just don't care anymore."

Barca argued the contrary.

"They just voted in lockstep with the governor without giving that much consideration [to the amendments]," Barca said. "There's no question they would've made it more legally viable had they accepted some of the amendments. But there seems to be this attitude on the part of Republicans that they just absolutely refuse to accept any Democratic amendments."

In addition to voter suppression, Barca said a significant concern among Democrats is the cost of the measure.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the law could cost more than $5.7 million to implement. At a time when the legislature is making "unprecedented cuts to education," Barca said, that amount of money could be used "in a lot better fashion."

Barca said he expects the legislation will face a legal challenge, adding that states that have tried to pass similar, but less restrictive, legislation have not been able to withstand the tests of the court.

Walker defended the law's legal strength after signing it, saying he had "no doubt" it would stand up to a constitutional challenge.

Walker stressed the importance of "making sure we have legislation that protects the integrity of an open, fair and honest election in every single case."

Some, however, disagreed with this interpretation of the law.

"I'll continue to scream it from the rooftops, that this is evil and heinous legislation that they're passing through," Terrell said. "They're literally writing away people's rights."

Terrell added that he hopes that, despite the "extra hoops and barriers" put in place by the legislation, people will make a serious effort to vote. He vowed to do everything he can to help people obtain the proper identification and get to the polls.

"Our goal should be to encourage people to vote, not to make it more difficult," Barca said.

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