- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Election clerks from predominantly white suburbs of Milwaukee testified Tuesday in support of new state voting laws, including a photo ID requirement, that critics have challenged as discriminatory against racial minorities, the poor and young people.

Testimony from the clerks in Republican strongholds kicked off the state Department of Justice’s defense of more than a dozen laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker since 2011. The liberal groups and voters challenging the laws rested their case after their last witness, American University political historian Allan Lichtman, testified that the changes amounted to state-sponsored discrimination.

Attorneys for the state say that higher voter turnout disproves concerns over voter suppression and that state workers are diligent about getting free IDs to those who need them.

Election clerks from Port Washington, Cedarburg and Waukesha County testified that they support the various legal changes because they made elections more secure while also reducing confusion among voters about election times, locations and who is eligible to vote.

But Port Washington clerk Susan Westerbeke, under questioning from the judge, conceded “there’s potential for confusion” since the law allows communities adjacent to one another to be open different days and hours for voting before Election Day, within a 12-day window.

“Any time there’s a change, which there have been a lot of, it just muddies it even more for voters and the poll workers,” Westerbeke said.

The most recent census data shows that about 5 percent of the population of both Cedarburg and Port Washington is comprised of minorities, which is less than half the statewide average of 12 percent. Each suburb has about 11,000 residents.

Waukesha County Clerk Kathleen Novack testified that she supported reducing the time available for in-person early voting because it addressed what she called the problem of “over access” to voting opportunities in other parts of the state. Waukesha County is a heavily Republican county that is 94 percent white.

Much of the case by those challenging the laws has focused on hardships faced by minorities, and difficulties they have in obtaining photo IDs, especially if they don’t have backing documents required by the Division of Motor Vehicles to get a free ID.

Lichtman testified that he’s not accusing DMV workers of wrongdoing, but rather said that they’re “in a very bad system that leads to bad results.” He previously testified that race is a key factor for those who request free identification from the state but can’t get it.

Evidence has shown that 61 people had had their requests for free IDs from DMV denied as of May 13, and 52 of them - or 85 percent of them - were either black, Hispanic or Native American. That’s in a state with a population that is 88 percent white, according to census data.

Attorneys for the state were expected to present testimony showing that few problems exist with issuing free IDs and that DMV workers go to great lengths to help people facing problems. The state has issued about 420,000 free ID cards since the law took effect five years ago.

Wisconsin’s voter ID law, passed in 2011, has been upheld as constitutional under previous court challenges and will be in place for the first time in a general presidential election this November. The law was in place for elections in February and the presidential primary in April.

Supporters of the voter ID law say it helps combat fraud, while opponents presented evidence that there are very few documented cases of that.

Walker, a staunch defender of the voter ID law as a way to prevent fraud, appeared to be commenting on the case Tuesday with a message on Twitter that he directed at Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“Even as you lost, turnout in WI pres. primary was largest since ‘72,” Walker tweeted. “Easy to vote, hard to cheat.”

Earlier testimony included the former chief of staff to then-state Sen. Dale Schulz saying Republicans were “giddy” about passing the voter ID law in the hopes it would improve their chances of winning elections. Plaintiffs also showed a television interview of U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Republican and former state senator, saying on the night of the April primary that the voter ID law would “make a little bit of a difference as well” for the GOP in the fall.

The lawsuit was brought by the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute Inc., social justice group Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and 10 voters. The trial was expected to conclude by the end of the week, with U.S. District Judge James Peterson issuing a written ruling later.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer

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