MADISON, Wis. - A federal judge ordered Wisconsin transportation officials Thursday to immediately produce documents clearly explaining how people who lack a photo ID can obtain voting credentials and to perform checks to ensure field workers are giving applicants correct information about the process.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson refused to invalidate the state's entire voter ID law, as a liberal advocacy group had asked. He said he lacks the authority to do so because the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld it. He also expressed reluctance to make sweeping changes so close to the Nov. 8 election.
Peterson's order came in the wake of media reports showing Division of Motor Vehicles workers have been giving credential applicants inaccurate information about the process. Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Institute filed a motion with Peterson earlier this month alleging that the misinformation violated his July 29 order that the DOT must clarify a process that he labeled "a wretched failure."
Peterson repeated that characterization on Thursday and added, "What we're doing here it patching it up to get to the election."
State law requires voters to show photo ID at the polls. People who lack IDs can get free ones at DMV stations if they provide identifying documents such as birth certificates or Social Security cards.
Under regulations the state Department of Transportation adopted in May, anyone who lacks such documents can apply for a temporary voting credential. All applicants who pass a precursory DOT check to ensure they don't already have ID are supposed to get a credential in the mail within six days, regardless of what documents they lack. The DOT continues to check applicants' backgrounds after they receive the credentials, putting them on track to obtain regular IDs.
According to DOT data, only 1,680 people had applied for the credentials as of Sept. 30. Of those applicants 1,350 of those applicants had progressed through full-scale identity checks and received a full ID card. The rest have been given credentials valid through the Nov. 8 election.
Media reports late last month show DMV workers have been telling people they need birth certificates to enter the application process and that it could take as long as eight weeks for credentials to arrive.
Peterson's order Thursday requires DOT to produce a one-page explanation of how the process works as well as a document applicants can take with them that explains what happens next. The agency must submit the documents to him by Friday and distribute them to voting rights groups, municipal clerks, the media and anyone else on DMV contact lists beginning Monday. DMV must clarify the description of the process on its website as well.
DOT also must perform spot checks on DMV workers to make sure they're giving out accurate information and create a script for workers to follow when dealing with applicants. DOT must submit status reports to him every Friday through the election.
He also ordered state attorneys and OWI lawyers to hammer out plans for a new public information campaign on the process, telling them to get a final strategy to him by the end of next week. He exempted the state from the normal bidding process to help it hire vendors to execute the campaign quickly.
The judge said he considered requiring DOT to issue applicants credentials on the spot but thought better of it because of security risks.
OWI attorney Josh Kaul said he was pleased with the judge's order. Johnny Koremenos, a spokesman for the state Justice Department, which is defending DOT in the case, said the agency wouldn't seek to stay Peterson's order or appeal it.
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