A federal judge has ordered Wisconsin to investigate reports that some Department of Motor Vehicles offices are failing to make voter IDs easily available, after pledging last week to do so.
VoteRiders, a group that helps people get voter IDs, sent volunteers to ten DMV offices around the state to test the accessibility of voter IDs. In only three offices were volunteers correctly informed that they could get an ID quickly and without providing specific documents, the group told NBC News.
The group's findings raise fears that some would-be voters in the pivotal battleground state could be kept from the polls, despite the state's pledge that it would make IDs easy to get.
The VoteRiders investigation was first reported Thursday by The Nation, which posted an audio recording in which a Madison DMV clerk apparently failed to tell a Vote Riders staffer about the streamlined ID process. VoteRiders provided NBC News with an audio recording of a separate September 22 interaction between a DMV clerk in central Wisconsin and a VoteRiders volunteer, in which the clerk likewise failed to inform the volunteer about the streamlined process.
U.S. Judge James Peterson wrote in the Friday order that the reports, "if true, demonstrate that the state is not in compliance with this court's injunction order, which requires the state to "[p]romptly issue a credential valid as a voting ID to any person who" applies for one.
"Defendants must investigate these allegations and provide a report to the court by October 7, 2016," Peterson added. "The report should explain the scope of the investigation, its results, and any corrective action to be taken. Additional reports may be ordered as needed."
A spokeswoman for the Wisconsin DMV called the report "concerning" and "not consistent with DMV protocol."
"Judge Peterson's order for an investigation is consistent with an investigation already begun by DMV in response to the story, and we intend to investigate and report to the court as ordered," Patty Mayers, director of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation public affairs said in a statement on Friday.
In the recording, a VoteRiders volunteer inquired about getting an ID for an elderly woman who had recently moved to the state from California, now lives in a rural area of Wisconsin and has no birth certificate.
The clerk incorrectly informed the volunteer she'd need to acquire several underlying documents, a process the clerk acknowledged could take weeks. Never during the roughly 25-minute conversation did the clerk tell the volunteer about the temporary voter ID process.
The volunteer made a recording of the conversation, which was made available to NBC News.
The clerk, who appeared professional and eager to help, said the easiest approach would be to contact the California county where the woman was born and try to get her birth certificate. After obtaining that, the clerk said, she would need to prove her residency in Wisconsin, which could be done by obtaining a Social Security card.
"How can we help her vote in November?" the volunteer asked.
An alternative route, the clerk said, would be to apply for a state ID through the DMV. But she would still need other documents to prove her identity, the clerk added.
"It does take time," the clerk said. "It's very time-consuming."
Later in the conversation, the volunteer asked whether many people had made similar inquiries. The clerk said he thought there would be as the election approached, and suggested that could cause problems.
"There's going to be a lot of people saying I need to get my ID card tomorrow—and that's where I think there's going to be some excitement."
The voter advocacy group's findings suggest possible shortcomings in the state's process for educating DMV employees about the procedure for giving out voter IDs. Voting rights advocates are also citing the reported problems to argue that the state's strict ID law should be modified or overturned.
Wisconsin could be critical in the presidential race. Polling there currently gives Hillary Clinton a slim lead over Donald Trump.
A federal court ruled last month that Wisconsin's ID law could stay in place only as long as the state pledged to "promptly" mail temporary voter IDs to anyone who went to a DMV office and initiated the application process, bringing whatever documents they had.
The state agreed to do so, and said it had trained DMV clerks on the new procedure. In a September 22 court filing, Attorney General Brad Schimel wrote that DMV "field staff are now trained to ensure that anyone who fills out these forms will receive a photo ID, mailed to them within six days of their application," even without a birth certificate.
The state even has said that in the week before the election, it will send IDs by overnight mail to ensure they arrive in time.
A federal court found in 2013 that over 300,000 Wisconsinites lack the ID required by the law, which has been called the strictest ID law in the nation.
But to Molly McGrath of VoteRiders, the lack of consistency highlights the problem with entrusting voting rights to a state bureaucracy, the DMV, not set up to handle the issue.
"Democracy's kind of up to this DMV-shopping in Wisconsin," McGrath said.
In a brief filed Friday with a federal appeals court, lawyers for the ACLU challenging Wisconsin's voter ID law cited the apparent difficulties getting ID from the DMV after initiating the process, known as the IDPP. And they asked that the law be modified so that people could vote without an ID by signing an affidavit swearing to their identity.
That appeal is separate from the case being heard by Judge Peterson. And the appeal is unlikely to be resolved before the November election, meaning Wisconsinites without ID are likely to be reliant on the DMV process if they want to cast a ballot this fall.
"I have observed that DMV employees appear to be unfamiliar with the current IDPP or fail to initiate it in appropriate circumstance," McGrath testified, according to the brief. "I have observed DMV employees failing to initiate the IDPP after confirming that the citizen lacks a birth certificate or passport. I have observed that DMV employees have been uncertain as to how to carry out the IDPP and have not advised the citizen that he or she will promptly receive a credential to use for voting."