Enhanced DMV service is vital for upcoming election

The DMV has become the gateway to our democracy

American Flag on toothpick with Vote flag election urging democracy voter participation
American flag and white flag with vote text on white background by Marco Verch, professional photographer and speaker via Flickr CC BY 2.0

It’s been nearly a decade since former Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 23 into law, establishing one of the most restrictive and extreme photo ID laws in the nation. Since that time, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has become the gateway to our democracy – providing critical support to voters who need access to a Wisconsin DOT-issued driver’s license or state ID with which they can vote. While the DOT never asked for this responsibility, this is the world in which we now live. Today, the path to the ballot box leads straight through Wisconsin DMV service centers.

Unfortunately, that path is not equally accessible for all voters. In 2016, we saw that inadequate access to photo ID led to barriers to the ballot for thousands of Wisconsinites; particularly for Wisconsinites of color, college students, older voters and people with travel-limiting disabilities. Access is particularly challenging for many people in rural areas, which typically provide limited hours and zero access to public transit. These challenges are all amplified under COVID-19. 

We applaud the DMV for recognizing the need to expand services recently. Most notably, their press release announced a new, much-needed temporary service center in South Madison. This is an important step in expanding access to driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs – specifically by paying attention to the need for a greater number of service center locations. It is still concerning that the DOT is not doing more to preserve and expand access in other parts of Wisconsin, particularly when it comes to service hours. In Milwaukee, the downtown service center on 6th Street will only be open on Wednesdays in October and the morning of Saturday, October 31st. This speaks to a larger issue associated with service center hours. Across the DMV’s 80 permanent service centers, only 7 provide Saturday options.

Before November 3rd, the DOT needs to better acknowledge the ways in which its current DMV service center infrastructure is insufficient. This means doing everything it can to expand weekday hours in spaces like the Milwaukee 6th street location, providing as many Saturday hours across the State as possible, amplifying online services, and providing more public information.

Long term, investment in DMV service centers needs to reflect the critical role that DMV access now plays in our democracy. Unless something changes, inequitable access to DMV service centers will continue to mean unequal access to the ballot. To address this issue, we need more DMV satellite locations in Wisconsin’s urban spaces, Saturday hours at every permanent service center across the State, and the option of obtaining a free ID for voting via an online process. These expanded services need to be matched with a long-term public education campaign. Only then will we be able to build a democracy that works for everyone. Action is needed now.

Note: If you do not have a Wisconsin driver’s license or DOT state-issued ID card with which to vote, other options are listed at bringit.wi.gov. You can always get a free ID for voting at a DMV service center near you, even if you don’t have access to a birth certificate or other documents.