POLITICS
09/09/2011 05:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Wisconsin Official Instructs Staff Not To Mention Free IDs For Voting

WASHINGTON -- An internal memo sent around the Wisconsin Department of Transportation went public this week, sparking controversy over its instructions that employees should not tell state residents they can receive free photo identification for voting unless they ask.

The memo in question, sent out by former Republican state Senate aide Steve Krieser, the executive assistant of the Department of Transportation, is causing backlash across the state because of legislation signed in May by Republican Gov. Scott Walker requiring voters to show valid photo ID when going to the polls.

Obtaining a state-issued photo ID for the purpose of voting is actually free of charge. But the catch is that voters have to be in the know: If they don't specifically ask for the free ID, they'll get charged $28. Krieser told The Huffington Post he has no plans to adjust the policy.

The Capital Times obtained the internal memo circulated on July 1 by Krieser, in which he instructs them not to tell residents about the free IDs: "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," the memo says.

Krieser argued that there are temporary signs posted at all of the Department of Motor Vehicle stations in the state to inform people they must check the box to request a free ID. He said there are plans to place permanent signs, but that he had no timeline for it.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has already pounced on the controversy, sending out an email to supporters questioning whether they should take Krieser at his word that there are actually signs on display.

Even Rep. Evan Wynn (R-Whitewater), who voted for the voter ID law, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he found the internal memo troubling.

The progressive group One Wisconsin Now has also filed an open records request for all communication between Krieser and other officials regarding the voter ID law and its implementation.

"It's just absolutely ridiculous that the law would provide free IDs for voting and they would specifically say 'let's not tell them it's free,'" said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now.

But Michael Pyritz, a current Republican state Senate aide who worked on the voter ID law, told the Capital Times the law was never intended to give away large numbers of free IDs.

Krieser argued that his role is apolitical -- that he is implementing the policy without passing judgment on whether it's "good policy, bad policy or otherwise." He said at the time he wrote it, there were no political motivations, it was just how he thought the new law should be enacted.

"Back then, as in now, I hadn't had conversations with the governor's office or the Republican Party or any other functionary or person other than DMV management about how we should approach it," Krieser said. "It was really based on our reading of the statutes."

But Krieser did have a role in voter ID legislation as a top aide to a GOP state senator who was working on the issue. He previously served as the chief of staff to former state Sen. Tom Reynolds (R), as well as for other Republicans.

Reynolds also served as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Election Process Reform in 2005 and 2006. The committee was pushing a voter ID law similar to the one that Walker recently signed into law.

Krieser confirmed to HuffPost that he did in fact work for Reynolds on the issue, although he dismissed the suggestion that his work had any influence in the controversial memo he sent to DOT employees.

Since July 1, when the voter ID law went into effect, 59 percent of roughly 18,300 new IDs issued and renewed in Wisconsin have been free of charge, according to data provided by the Wisconsin DOT.

While there is no data on how many people wanted IDs for the purpose of voting, issuing more than 10,000 IDs free of charge means the state did not collect around $302,000 that it otherwise would have.

Krieser acknowledged it's a substantial budgetary impact, but said that it comes from the state transportation fund and has no affect on his operating budget.

"It's a public policy decision that the legislature has made to essentially forgo revenue on these things and therefore reduce the take to the transportation budget," Krieser said. "So that's on them; we really don't have a position on it."

In July, Walker also came under criticism for proposing to close several DMV offices, a move Democrats argued would have violated the law requiring that places issuing licenses need to be open for at least 20 hours a week in each county. Walker eventually backed off and announced he would leave the stations open.

In rural and northern Wisconsin, few stations are open more than two days a week and none are open on weekends. So to obtain an ID, Ross said, people would need to take time off work or time out of their schedule to get to a DMV before they are allowed to vote.

Twenty-six percent of the 91 Wisconsin DMV stations are open one day a month or less, according to One Wisconsin Now. Therefore, argued Ross, making people pay $28 on top of the cost of actually getting to a DMV could be burdensome for many Wisconsin residents. He likened it to a "poll tax" of the sort that were in place in the South during the Jim Crow era to prevent minorities from voting.

"There is cost no matter what, whether they give these IDs out for free or not," he said. "There is a cost that you would not normally have to bear in order to be an eligible voter."

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has created a Speakers Bureau to spread the word about how voters can obtain the necessary identification, an effort funded by the photo ID legislation.

The recent recall elections in Wisconsin saw a large turnout, but voters weren't yet required to present an ID. They will not need to do so until 2012.

Krieser said he would not change the directive to employees unless the legislature changes the law. Anyone who mistakenly paid for an ID just to vote could potentially get a refund processed, but he said that's decided on a case-by-case basis.