Outreach needed to protect elderly voting rights

In May, the Wisconsin legislature passed a controversial voter ID bill that requires all state residents to present a valid photo ID at voting polls starting in 2012. In addition, individuals voting by absentee ballot, unless part of a group exempted by the statute, also must provide a valid photo ID or an acceptable substitute.

While aimed at preventing voter fraud throughout the state, the law could make it more difficult for some senior citizens without driver’s licenses to vote.

“It’s a relatively complicated piece of legislation,” said Rebecca Mason, attorney in the Milwaukee office of Godfrey & Kahn S.C. “There are a lot of moving parts and exemptions that can be confusing if it isn’t explained well to someone.”

If voting traditionally at a polling location, all voters, including senior citizens, must provide a valid driver’s license, a U.S. passport, a military ID, a tribal ID card or a Wisconsin Department of Transportation-issued ID card, said Helen Marks-Dicks, associate state director of state issues for AARP Wisconsin.

Voters also may use a certificate of U.S. naturalization that was issued no earlier than 2 years before the date of an election or an unexpired ID card issued by an accredited Wisconsin university or college that also contains the student’s signature and an expiration date of two years.

“Even individuals who decide to vote absentee because they don’t want to brave the weather must provide an acceptable form of photo identification with their ballot,” Dicks added.

According to AARP Wisconsin, there are approximately 178,000 Wisconsinites over the age of 65 who do not have active driver’s licenses.

Senior citizens living independently at home or in assisted living apartments are not covered by any of the exemptions in the bill, Dicks said.

“We’re doing a lot of outreach, trying to make sure people know they need a photo ID and what kind of photo ID is acceptable,” Dicks said. “We’re working with directors of the region’s Aging and Disability Resource Centers to inform seniors about what they need.”

The new law contains provisions for voters and senior citizens who are “indefinitely confined” or those who reside in nursing homes or other residential facilities, said Tom Ramsey, director of government relations at the Wisconsin Association of Homes and Services for the Aging Inc.

“Indefinitely confined” electors are defined by the Wisconsin Government Accountability board as “persons who, because of age, physical illness, infirmity or disability, may have difficulty traveling to the polling place.” Indefinitely confined voters can reside in their own home, an apartment, a nursing home or another care facility.

When applying for an absentee ballot, voters must indicate they are indefinitely confined.

Wisconsin law requires municipal clerks to appoint special voting deputies to conduct voting in nursing homes and other qualified care facilities, said Sue Edman, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission.

Voting deputies are required to sign the absentee ballot certification envelope, which satisfies the Voter ID requirement.

“We work with 10 to 12 nursing homes in the Milwaukee area and provide them with Special Voting Deputies who sign ballots for the residents,” Edman said. “For those people living in a nursing home that is visited by an SVD or for people who are indefinitely confined or disabled in their homes or another facility and apply for a permanent absentee ballot, virtually nothing will change under the new law.”

According to Edman, the burden of change falls upon the witness or the SVD who will have to sign a second part of the ballot or the envelope that certifies the individual is who they say they are.

“They already have to sign as a witness, but the new regulation requires them to sign a second part of the ballot indicating identification,” Edman said.

Facilities that are not visited by special voting deputies can also have an authorized representative of the facility complete the Certification of Care Facility Authorized Representatives, section of the ballot, Edman said.

According to Ramsey, residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and retirement homes who wish to vote but do not vote absentee would have to meet the same “proof of identification” requirements as any other voter.

AARP Wisconsin is working with various voter groups and resource centers to make sure senior citizens without valid driver’s licenses can get rides to Department of Motor Vehicle facilities to get the state-issued voter ID cards, Dicks said.

“Senior (citizens) vote at a very high rate,” Dicks said. “So it’s important to them, and to us, that they still have that opportunity.”

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board also is doing outreach to organizations wishing for clarification on the law, Mason said.

“I think everyone’s biggest fear is that some facilities or individuals won’t know about the changes or they will deem things too confusing to even try to vote,” said Mason. “It’s very possible that individuals will just not vote because of the new restrictions. Public education on the topic can help address those issues.”


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