Voter ID laws don't necessarily stop fraud. They do stop people like Leroy from being able to vote.
Leroy Switlick of Milwaukee has voted in every single U.S. presidential election since he was 21. Now he’s 67, and for the first time, he might not get to cast a ballot.
Before 2011, Switlick never had a problem voting. The registrar would mail a card with his information on it, and he’d bring that card to the polling place and exchange it for a ballot. Switlick had voted this way in every election since 1970.
All of that changed five years ago when Gov. Scott Walker passed laws to get rid of early voting and implement strict voter ID laws. Now Switlick — who is legally blind and doesn't have a driver's license — needs a state-issued photo ID card, something he can only get at a special office of the DMV.
It's a new — and increasingly frustrating — experience.
On three separate occasions, Switlick has visited the DMV to try to get his ID.
The first time, this past spring, he was turned away when he couldn’t produce a photo ID — the very thing he was there to get.
The second time, he made an appointment in advance with a manager who’d promised to help him. When he arrived, that manager wasn’t there.
The third time, he went to the office with a representative from the ACLU. They told him the DMV’s computers weren’t working that day and couldn’t help him. "The crazy thing was when we called back later and they said there had been nothing wrong with the computers," Switlick said. "There were a lot of people turned away that day.”
"Right now, I’m still in limbo," Switlick said.
With the first deadline for voter registration looming on Oct. 19, there’s a chance that even after five months of trying to get his ID issued, Switlick might not receive it in time to register to vote in November.
While all citizens in the U.S. legally have the right to vote, residents in at least 31 states across the country are grappling with restrictive voter ID laws that can limit them from performing the most essential act of citizenship.
Wisconsin's voter ID requirements are particularly strict. Combined with their removal of early voting, the state is home to some of the most restrictive rules in the nation.
The new regulations require that voters present a valid government-issued photo ID card in order to prove their identity. Even people voting by absentee ballot must enclose a photocopy of their ID. There are some exceptions to these rules — Native Americans can use a tribal ID, and currently enrolled students can use their college or university-issued IDs — but overall, they add a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy.
Proponents of voter ID laws say the laws are designed to improve voting, not restrict it. Larry Dupuis, legal director at the ACLU of Wisconsin, says the reality is very different.
"The whole idea of voter ID laws got started a while back with the notion that elections might be stolen and it became sort of a political talking point," Dupuis said.
Supporters cite the very scary sounding prospect of voter fraud — and say these laws will keep people from casting multiple ballots in the same election and trying to subvert the democratic process. But, Dupuis says this about the laws in practice:
"The way these things operate, they tend to depress turnout for younger people who don’t have a driver's license or are in college, elderly people who no longer drive and minority folks who use transit and don’t necessarily have driver's licenses because they don’t need them. And there is a benefit to one party over another."
The idea that these laws are discriminatory isn't just Dupuis' opinion. Researchers at the University of California San Diego found that strict voter ID laws reduced turnout during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in demographics that tend to vote Democrat — particularly black and Latino voters.
Earlier this year, Switlick decided enough was enough. He joined the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation’s ongoing lawsuit against the state’s voter ID laws.
For the last five years, the state of Wisconsin and the ACLU have battled back and forth, with victories and losses on both sides. While an April 2014 judgment struck down the law, the state successfully appealed, putting the laws back in place.
Later this year, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit will make a decision on the case, but that might not happen before Election Day on Nov. 8. That means that for this election, people who want to cast ballots in Wisconsin and who don’t have valid photo ID are going to have to jump through some pretty big hoops at the DMV.
Whatever happens afterward, Dupuis, like Switlick, is committed to continuing the fight.
"The number of people who are affected by this are not likely to tip an election one way or another," Dupuis said. "But isn’t a democracy about ensuring everyone has a voice? These laws drive a wedge between the government and communities of color and between other people who have trouble getting ID. And if you make people cynical, you drive down participation in our democracy and the less legitimate it is. It becomes a government for whom ID is easy to get, not all the people."
It's one thing to opt out of participating in a democracy and quite another to have a democracy opt out of having you in it.
Switlick and Dupuis aren't backing down. And neither should other voters.
For Americans casting ballots in November, being aware of what specific ID laws exist in each state is essential.