Wisconsin Senate committee passes voter ID requirement

By Scott Bauer
Madison, Wisconsin (AP) March 2011

A Wisconsin state Senate committee passed a bill last week that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls, approving it over the objection of a Democratic state senator who wasn’t allowed to vote.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 Senate Democrats who skipped town last week rather than vote on a bill taking away collective bargaining rights for public employees, joined the committee meeting by phone. He and other Democrats have been participating and voting in committee meetings by phone ever since they left last week.

Republican Sen. Mary Lazich, chairwoman of the Elections Committee, refused to let Erpenbach ask questions or vote on the voter ID proposal.

“Seriously? I’m not going to be able to ask my questions?” a surprised Erpenbach said over the speakerphone set up for the meeting.

Lazich repeatedly asked Erpenbach where he was and whether he was on his way to the Capitol.

“You can come in at any moment,” she said. “We want you present. We want you to have a full discussion.”

She accused Erpenbach of an ethical violation for not being in Madison to take up the union bill that has led to eight straight days of protests in which demonstrators have filled the halls of the Capitol, noisily banging on drums, chanting and displaying signs calling for the proposal to be killed.

The meeting on the voter ID bill was held under the watch of four state patrol officers in the parlor of the state Senate chamber. A limited number of members of the public were escorted in to watch.

Erpenbach called in and asked a couple questions early in the meeting, but was later cut off by Lazich.

“I answered the roll call. I’m here,” Erpenbach said.

“I’m not going to allow you to participate,” Lazich said. “You are not here.”

She argued that because the Senate was under a call of the house for consideration of the union bill, and Erpenbach was ignoring that, she was under no obligation to allow him to take part in the meeting. His name was not called as the three Republicans present for the meeting voted to pass the bill.

“I vote no,” Erpenbach said. “Erpenbach votes no. I vote no.”

Erpenbach and Democrats have opposed the voter ID bill for years, arguing that it will make it more difficult for college students, senior citizens and minorities to vote. Republicans argue it’s needed to combat voter fraud.

Wisconsin voters currently are not required to show any form of ID before casting a ballot.

The new requirement would be in effect for the April election, but voters who don’t have IDs would still be allowed to cast their ballots and would be given information about the new law that would fully take effect in 2012.

The committee voted to expand the number of acceptable IDs to include U.S. passports and tribal IDs. Also allowed is a driver’s license, a military identification card or a state identification card or certificate issued by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The proposal comes with a cost, which means the Senate couldn’t take it up before at least one Democrat returns because at least 20 lawmakers have to be there to take up budget bills. But Sen. Joe Leibham, the Republican sponsor, said all the parts except those that cost money could be passed as soon as this week.

Republicans are forging ahead with other business in the Senate while Democrats stymie their efforts to pass the union bill.