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In Wisconsin, the path to the voting booth now means a stop at the DMV for many

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, it's been a primary season with long lines, such as the ones at polling stations in Arizona last week. And now the focus shifts to Wisconsin, where next Tuesday's presidential primary will be its first statewide election with a new voter I.D. law in effect.

    John Yang reports from Milwaukee.

  • JOHN YANG:

    In a driving rain, Nefertiti Helem and Ernest Barksdale headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles in downtown Milwaukee.

    Neither Nefertiti, who walks with a cane because she has lupus, nor her boyfriend, Ernest, has a photo I.D., and they will need one to vote in next week's presidential primary. Starting this year, the path to the polling place for many Wisconsin voters includes a stop at the DMV, which has severely cut its hours across the state.

    They filled out forms, had their photos taken and waited to hear how they would fare, all with the help of community organizer Anita Johnson.

    Wisconsin's strict new voter requirement was signed into law in 2011 by Republican Governor Scott Walker. It's part of a package of election law changes the Republican-controlled legislature approved along party lines. Implementation of the law had been delayed by courts.

    And then last year, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the law to take effect even as a challenge to part of it moves forward. Opponents say as many as 350,000 otherwise eligible voters may be disenfranchised, many of them poor and people of color.

    Neil Albrecht heads up Milwaukee's Election Commission. He's appointed by the city's mayor, a Democrat.

  • NEIL ALBRECHT, Milwaukee Election Commission:

    We have seen lawmakers change the hours and the number of days that early voting can occur. We have seen restrictions around voter registration, and we have seen things like the photo I.D. law. All of those can have some effect on voter participation in an election.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Across the country, 16 states have new voting restrictions in place in this presidential election year. Wisconsin is one of 10 states with tough voter I.D. laws. It allows only limited types of identification, including a driver's license, a state I.D. or a passport.

    Proponents say the new law prevents voter fraud.

    Rick Esenberg is president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

    RICK ESENBERG, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty: We don't think it's unreasonable to take some precautions to assume — to assure that people won't cheat.

    And I don't know quite follow the argument that voting is the one area in life where we — no one will cheat. People cheat on their taxes. They cheat on their spouses. They cheat in a variety of ways. And I don't know why voting would be something that would somehow be immune from that unfortunate human impulse.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Critics say voter fraud is rare.

  • NEIL ALBRECHT:

    It's certainly not at a significant enough level to warrant something that will present such a significant barrier to voters.

    I often hear the question, well, how many cases of voter fraud are acceptable? And my response to that question is, well, how many cases of disenfranchised voters, voters who are not able to appear at their polling places on Election Day because of these barriers, are acceptable?

  • RICK ESENBERG:

    It's one thing to say that there are people who currently lack some form of identification, but what we're really concerned about is whether or not they can't, through some reasonable effort, obtain that identification, and then became a person who otherwise would have voted and didn't.

    And I don't think that the bulk of the evidence suggests that there are a lot of people like that.

  • JOHN YANG:

    But, for some, getting that identification can be difficult.

  • LAURA PATTEN, Wisconsin:

    It shouldn't be hard to exercise a fundamental right to vote.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Take the case of Laura Patten and what she went through with her 18-year-old daughter, Mara, who was adopted from Romania when she was 3.

  • LAURA PATTEN:

    We went to gather the documents. I went to the DMV Web site first to check the hours. Made a little checklist. OK, I have got the W-2. I have got the birth certificate, and off we went.

  • JOHN YANG:

    After three visits and a full day off work, the DMV said it wasn't enough.

  • LAURA PATTEN:

    I circled the right check marks, all of the things that I had.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Right.

  • LAURA PATTEN:

    And I kept scratching my head, thinking, OK, I have got this. I showed you that. And it still didn't work.

  • JOHN YANG:

    It should have worked. A DMV official said she took what she needed on the first try.

  • LAURA PATTEN:

    Mara and her brother and sister are all adopted from Romania. And so voting for us is obviously important just as Americans. It's kind of a house rule. You vote. You do. We can vote against each other too. But you definitely vote.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Alongside her older brother and sister, Mara voted for the first time in February's local primary, which takes us back to Ernest and Nefertiti's trip to the DMV. Ernest had all his documents and got what he needed to vote on Tuesday.

    But Nefertiti?

  • NEFERTITI HELEM, Wisconsin:

    I don't have a birth certificate.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Because of that, she will have to wait.

  • WOMAN:

    I would say that you probably will hear something within 14 days or so.

  • NEFERTITI HELEM:

    I was a little upset, but, you know, that's the law, so I can't — you know, I'm not going to break the law just because I want to do something. So I can't really get upset, but, yes, I am kind of disappointed, because I did want to vote.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Nefertiti and Ernest said, even though the results were mixed, they couldn't have done this without the help of community organizer Anita Johnson.

  • ANITA JOHNSON, Community Organizer:

    It's very intimidating. The only way most people get a chance to participate in democracy is by voting. You are stopping people — this government is stopping people from participating in democracy.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Election officials say they will be watching closely on Tuesday to see what the new law brings.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Milwaukee.

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