Editor's Note: Earlier this summer, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed off on a new law, Assembly Bill 7, that requires Wisconsin voters to show photo identification at the polls. Critics of the law contend that this requirement will disenfranchise many youth and minority voters. New America Media’s Jonah Most spoke with Biko Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters Education Fund, who is working on a campaign to help youth in Wisconsin obtain photo identification.
Jonah Most: What is Wisconsin’s AB 7 legislation, and why does it matter?
Biko Baker: The voter ID bill is something that recently passed through the Wisconsin State Legislature, requiring students to have an unexpired photo ID with an expiration date and a signature [in order to vote]. Non-students have to have a state-issued ID. My concern is that 50,000 young people of color in Wisconsin do not have the proper ID to vote. Young people of color have a right to have their voice heard.
JM: What does this law aim to achieve?
BB: The bill supposedly prevents voter fraud. However, one of the interesting things about it is that the U.S. Department of Justice did a study and went into Milwaukee and looked at all of the possible voter ID fraud [cases]. They only found 20 cases out of millions of ballots, and 11 of those were actually from felons who thought they [had the right to] vote.
I don’t believe that this bill has proven it will stop any fraudulent ballots. I think we would need a change if there were proof that our current system were broken, but it isn’t. In fact, Wisconsin had among the highest voter turnout in 2006 and 2008. I think the significance is that it isn’t actually about voter fraud, it’s about voter suppression. It will have the biggest impact on low-income communities and especially on people of color [and] I personally think it is meant to disenfranchise young voters.
JM: Who sponsored this legislation?
BB: It was a bi-partisan effort. Most people probably supported it. There had even been talks about it in the previous administration, so it’s not about partisan politics or Democratic or Republican candidates. But Wisconsin previously had some of the most progressive voter laws. Before, you could show up on the day of the election with a [utility] bill, with proof you’ve lived in the state at least ten days, and then go vote. So the tradition of Wisconsin is the exact opposite of this bill.
JM: Why do you believe this legislation will have a particular impact on young voters?
BB: Young people are transitory. They’re moving constantly [and] they don’t have steady jobs, so that is a huge impact. For people of color there are a lot of other issues, especially for poor people. There are barriers to getting a birth certificate, there is the fear of going to the DMV and getting arrested for past tickets, there are a lot of different layers.
JM: How does this law compare to voter requirements in other states?
BB: It is the most stringent law (in the nation) so the key thing here is that while in other places you have to have a bill or a check-cashing card, now in Wisconsin it has to be a Wisconsin-issued card, so this raises the bar significantly. If this is found constitutional it will likely become the standard-bearer for all ID laws.
JM: Do you believe there should be any ID requirements for voting?
BB: I think there should be some kind of proof of identification when you register, like giving the last four digits of your social security number or giving your address and a bill. I think that’s fine.
JM: Was your organization involved in opposing the legislation before it was passed?
BB: We were opposed to it. We put out a number of viral videos and messaging. In Milwaukee, the majority of residents are people of color, so the elected officials who represent the precincts where we work were smart on it and [also opposed]. The folks outside of Milwaukee, who we have little influence over given the racial dynamics of the state, were the ones who were for it.
JM: Now that AB 7 has passed, what is the focus of your work?
BB: We hope once the budget goes through… money [will be] allocated so that the state will actually pay for the IDs. We’re going to take folks to the DMV [to] get them IDs. We are already seeing unprecedented lines at the DMV.
We would also support a legal case. We will help find plaintiffs who have a good case that they were being disenfranchised under the U.S. Voting Rights Act. But we’re going to focus [first] on getting people IDs. The fact that so many young people don’t have IDs in the first place is a sign that we have something wrong in our society where people have opted out of voting and the electoral politics, so we are going to focus on that.