On April 5, the day of Wisconsin’s presidential primary, Anita Johnson picked up Dennis Hatten at his new apartment in West Milwaukee and took him to the polls. “We’re going to complete your journey and make sure you vote today,” Johnson told him.
Simply being able to vote in Wisconsin was no small feat for Hatten, a 53-year-old former Marine. He’d met Johnson, a 70-year-old Wisconsin coordinator for VoteRiders, in August 2015, as the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Hatten was living in temporary housing for homeless veterans across the street from Milwaukee’s VA hospital. Wisconsin’s strict new voter-ID law would be going into effect in 2016, and Johnson was part of the effort to help 300,000 registered voters without an acceptable government-issued ID obtain one—9 percent of the electorate.
Hatten had relocated to Wisconsin from Illinois in 2013. His Illinois driver’s license and veterans’ ID card were not accepted as valid voter IDs in Wisconsin, so he asked Johnson for assistance getting a photo-ID card from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. “I grew up in the 1960s in the segregated South, and I remember what my parents and grandparents had to go through to vote,” Hatten says. “As soon as I became of age to vote, I voted in every election and urged others to vote, too.”
It took Johnson six months to get Hatten a state photo ID because, like many African Americans born in the Jim Crow South, he didn’t have a birth certificate, and the DMV rejected his initial application. He took his new ID to the polls, but the address on it didn’t match his new address, which the poll workers needed to register him at the site (Wisconsin is one of 14 states with Election Day registration). While Hatten conferred with the poll worker, another man who tried to register with his veterans’ ID was turned away.
After a lengthy conversation with election officials, Hatten went back to his apartment and retrieved a utility bill with his new address. After waiting patiently in line while Johnson looked on nervously, he was finally able to cast a ballot. “I’ve never had any problems voting until I came to Wisconsin,” Hatten said, holding up his “I Voted” sticker. “If someone didn’t know the law like I did, they would’ve walked away from the voting booth.”
In fact, many Wisconsinites who didn’t have Johnson’s help or Hatten’s perseverance were blocked from the polls. Their experiences offered a striking rejoinder to Governor Scott Walker’s contention that the state’s voter-ID law “works just fine.” Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., a 58-year-old African American who had moved from Illinois to Milwaukee, brought his expired Illinois photo ID, birth certificate, and Social Security card to get a photo ID for voting, but the DMV rejected his application because his birth certificate read “Eddie Junior Holloway,” the result of a clerical error. Holloway spent $200 on a bus ticket to Illinois to try to amend his birth certificate and made seven trips to government agencies in two different states, but he still couldn’t vote in the Wisconsin primary. To date, the state’s DMV has rejected nearly a fifth of all applicants for a voter ID, 85 percent of whom were African American, Latino, or Native American.