An internal memo from a top Department of Transportation official instructs workers at Division of Motor Vehicles service centers not to tell members of the public that they can obtain voter identification cards free of charge -- unless they know to ask for it.
The memo, recently obtained by The Capital Times, was written by Steve Krieser and sent to all state Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles employees on July 1, the same day employees were to begin issuing photo IDs in accordance with a controversial new voter photo ID law adopted earlier in the year.
As laid out in the memo, failure to check a box when applying for photo ID with the Division of Motor Vehicles will result in the payment of $28. Interviews conducted about the memo suggest the state is more interested in continuing to charge the fee, which is required for a photo ID used for non-voting purposes, than it is in removing all barriers and providing easy access to a free, photo ID.
"While you should certainly help customers who come in asking for a free ID to check the appropriate box, you should refrain from offering the free version to customers who do not ask for it," Krieser writes to employees.
Krieser, who was recently promoted to executive assistant to the DOT secretary, instructs staff that customers should "self certify" their eligibility for the free ID. They can do that, he writes, if they meet the documentation requirements; if they are at least 17 years old; if they have checked the correct certification box on the new forms; and, most significantly, if they are "asking for a product that is available for free issuance."
The law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker on May 25, requires Wisconsin residents to present identification before they can vote. Republicans said it was necessary to combat voter fraud.
Acceptable forms of identification under the law include Wisconsin driver's licenses, certain student identification cards, passports, and voter identification cards for the thousands of residents who may not have any of those documents.
Democrats fought hard against the law, and the internal memo will likely provide further ammunition to charges that it is a modern-day version of the poll taxes once used to disenfranchise voters in the South, most of them African-American. Typically under those laws, citizens were required to pay to vote unless they had a father or grandfather who had voted prior to the abolition of slavery. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that such laws were unconstitutional.
"It was clear to me from the beginning that people would be disenfranchised because of this law," says state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D- Madison, after reading a copy of the memo. "Now we have the proof that people are not going to be getting these IDs unless the say the ‘magic words.'"
Similarly, Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now describes the memo as "the smoking gun" proving the legislation was always about denying people the right to vote. The director of the progressive advocacy group has for months disputed the GOP contention that the bill was needed to thwart massive voting fraud, citing the fact that fewer than two dozen people were charged with casting improper votes in the 2008 state elections.
But Krieser defends the directive he gave employees, saying in an interview Tuesday that when the law was written, it did not contain language that requires Division of Motor Vehicles employees to specifically ask those requesting a photo ID if they would be using it to vote or for another purpose.
"If the person initiates that direction, then certainly, we will help them. We will not be coy," Krieser says. "But we still are not going to be selling it at the counter as a free ID."
Since July 1, roughly 8,000 new IDs were issued and roughly 10,300 were renewed, according to figures supplied by the Department of Transportation. Of those roughly 18,300 IDs, nearly 59 percent were issued at no cost.
Michael Pyritz, a legislative aide to Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, who sponsored the voter ID bill, says given that there are numerous other reasons people need photo ID aside from voting, the intent of the law was not to have anyone without an ID to "all of a sudden" get a free one.
"But if they need it for voting, they can get a free ID," he says.
Robert Kraig, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin, however, scoffs at claims that the policy as outlined in the memo is designed to prevent the public from ripping off the state by obtaining free identification cards for purposes other than voting.
"That is absurd. They are the ones who created this whole situation by passing this law," Kraig says, adding that if some people get free cards when they would not have before, "well that's the state's problem."
Krieser and Pyritz stress that it is the job of the state Government Accountability Board to use the $750,000 it was given in the latest state budget to educate the public about the availability of free identification cards for voting.
Reid Magney, a spokesman for the accountability board, says that while the DMV is not required to say the cards are free, the board will be launching a major public education campaign about the voter photo ID law in January. One of the campaign's main messages is that the state ID is free if you ask for it, he says.
In the meantime, Krieser says the Department of Transportation is planning to place signs at each of the DMV service offices that say people need to check the box on the form in order to receive an ID for free. He says the signs are "in the design phase" and could not give a date when they would be placed in DMV offices.