DMV Roadblocks Could Disenfranchise Voters, Report Finds

By: - May 26, 2021 12:00 am

A Wisconsin poll worker sorts early and absentee ballots in Kenosha on Nov. 3. Wisconsin is one of several states that require a photo ID to vote in person and by mail. Wong Maye-E/The Associated Press

A state’s department of motor vehicles is not just a portal to a driver’s license for millions of Americans, but also to the ballot.

In a year when many Republican lawmakers have fought to pass new voting restrictions, including voter ID laws, voting rights advocates are shedding light on the bureaucratic barriers that could disenfranchise people.

To illustrate the impact of voter ID laws, All Voting is Local, a national voting rights group that has fought against restrictive bills in state legislatures, studied Wisconsin, a state that has had a voter ID provision since 2011. There are harsh inequities in the Badger State when it comes to access to Division of Motor Vehicles services, according to a report All Voting is Local released this week.

Without equal access to the DMV, the group found Wisconsinites may not be able to fulfill photo ID requirements to cast a ballot in person and by mail.

“Individuals need to be able to access these facilities to function and participate in society,” said Shauntay Nelson, Wisconsin state director for All Voting is Local. “It is an attack not simply on voting rights, but on human rights.” 

Limited locations and times of operation are some of the biggest barriers to accessing the DMV in Wisconsin, according to the report. Of the state’s 80 permanent DMV facilities, just seven offer Saturday hours—a roadblock for working people who cannot take time off during the week.

In a state of 65,000 square miles, driving to a DMV location open on Saturday could take hours. In the 11 counties that lack public transportation, limited locations between large distances can be difficult for Wisconsinites who don’t have a vehicle, the report said. This is a particular challenge in rural areas.

Republican state Sen. Duey Stroebel, who co-sponsored legislation this session that would make the state’s voter ID law more stringent, said the law is a simple, commonsense requirement that has withstood numerous legal challenges and remains popular among voters.

“There should not be one set of rules for in-person voters and a separate set of rules for absentee voters,” he said in an email. “Election integrity should not be a partisan issue and both sides should be able to find common ground on the issue.”

Stroebel added that Wisconsinites do not have to rely on driver’s licenses to meet the state’s voter ID standards: Voters can also use university-issued, tribal and military IDs, along with passports and free, state-issued ID cards.

DMV accessibility is a crucial element of the nationwide debate over voter access, Nelson said. In the six months since the presidential election, Republican lawmakers in at least 11 states have enacted strict, new barriers to the ballot, including photo ID requirements to vote by mail.

Nationwide, state legislators in 47 states introduced more than 360 bills that would add new requirements to vote, according to an April canvass from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. In the past week, Alabama banned curbside voting, while Iowa banned the collection of a voter’s ballot by anyone outside of the household or immediate family.

Wisconsin is one of the 36 states that require an ID to vote in person. But it also requires voters to submit a copy of their photo ID to vote by mail.

Before this year, only Wisconsin and Alabama had a photo ID requirement for absentee voting. States including Florida, Georgia and South Dakota added new ID requirements for mail-in voting this year. Lawmakers in at least eight other states are still debating measures that could add similar requirements.

To give equal access to getting an ID, Wisconsin should expand DMV hours 60 days prior to an election, establish new DMV centers in underserved communities and bolster online services, All Voting is Local argues.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order in 2019 that sought to expand access to the DMV through increased service hours, coordination with the state Elections Commission and online services. The order also established a hotline that helps voters attain a free photo ID. In his budget proposal released earlier this year, Evers requested additional funding to help expand these services.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.