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National

Court Reinstates Wisconsin Voter ID Law, Causes Chaos Before Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congressional midterm elections are less than 50 days away, and in Wisconsin there's a little bit of chaos.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Right, just last week a federal appeals court reinstated a controversial mandate requiring that voters show photo IDs at the polls.

INSKEEP: Ann-Elise Henzl of member station WUWM reports on what that's done to election preparations.

ANN-ELISE HENZL, BYLINE: In 2010, Wisconsin Republicans captured the legislature and the governor's office and soon passed stricter voting rules in the state. Governor Scott Walker, a longtime proponent of voter ID, eagerly signed the legislation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: To me, something as important as a vote is important in whether it's one case, 100 cases or 100,000 cases.

HENZL: A number of legal challenges followed from people who claim that mandate would disenfranchise some poor and minority voters, who are often less likely to have the accepted ID. The requirement was in effect for one election. Then courts blocked it, pending legal action. Just last week the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals removed that stay, leading to a collective gasp from election officials.

NEIL ALBRECHT: You never want to implement such a significant change in election procedures on the eve of what is projected to be a very high turnout election.

HENZL: That's Neil Albrecht, Milwaukee's election commissioner. He expects a big turnout because Governor Walker is in a close, heated race with Democratic challenger Mary Burke. Albrecht says the timing is bad for a number of reasons. Poll workers have already been trained, and there's no funding for training that would bring them up to speed on the photo ID rules.

ALBRECHT: Where we are is in the municipal warehouse for the election commission.

HENZL: So Albrecht expects a lot of poll workers and voters to rely on signage that's been stored here the last few years. Large, white signs with red letters list the acceptable forms of ID.

ALBRECHT: A Wisconsin Department of Transportation issued driver's license, a Wisconsin DOT-issued identification card.

HENZL: Poll worker training and voter education are just some of the challenges. Another is the popularity of absentee voting, and thousands of voters already got absentee ballots in the mail before the appeals court said photo IDs were required. State Elections Chief Kevin Kennedy says these ballots won't be counted, unless local elections clerks take some unprecedented steps.

KEVIN KENNEDY: They reach out to the voter, a written communication with follow-up saying, you needed to provide ID to get your ballot. The law's changed; please get us a copy of your ID.

HENZL: But some people simply don't have the forms of ID that'll be accepted at the polls.

(SOUNDBITE OF DMV)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now serving E5.

HENZL: Ninety-four-year-old Berneice Jones tried to get an ID this week at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Milwaukee.

BERNEICE JONES: I don't miss no vote. I vote absentee.

HENZL: Jones says she's never had a birth certificate, something that's kept her from getting a state ID in the past. Wisconsin officials say everyone who is eligible will get to vote, but Dale Ho doesn't buy that. He's voting rights project director for the ACLU and estimates that at least 300,000 voters don't have the proper ID.

DALE HO: The state would have to issue approximately 6,000 identification cards per day between now and election day. It's simply not possible.

HENZL: Ho doesn't think there is significant voter fraud in the state. While voter rights advocates hope for action from the full Court of Appeals, they're working hard to get IDs in the hands of people who might very well need them to vote on November 4. For NPR News, I'm and Ann-Elise Henzl in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 18, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline incorrectly referred to a Wisconsin court. The court in question is actually a federal appeals court in Chicago.