Given the amped-up hostilities between state Democrats and Republicans these days, it was probably not to be expected that the new voter ID law would be implemented without controversy.

Sure enough, last week Democrats charged that the GOP was trying to undercut the issuance of free IDs to those who need them to vote. A Department of Transportation memo issued the day the law went into effect told state workers not to alert people that they can get the ID cards for free.

Democrats had pushed for the free IDs during the legislative debate, saying otherwise it would disenfranchise voters — predominantly the poor and elderly — who do not have driver’s licenses or other picture IDs.

“I find this action unacceptable and paramount to a bait-and-switch tactic,” state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, complained to Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb.

Nonesense, was the response of state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greenfield. “All they have to do (to get a free ID) is to ask for it and it’s given to them.”

Indeed, the DOT application form MV3001 itself is pretty clear. After an applicant fills in name, address, Social Security number and identifying features, the first box you come to says: “For ID Applicants only — I certify that I am a United States citizen, will be at least 18 years of age by the next election and require a Wisconsin identification card for free in order to vote.”

Check the box and you get the free ID. Pretty straightforward.

So what’s the kerfuffle? Well, it’s over the memo from the DOT’s Steven Kreiser that told staff: “While you should certainly help customers who come in asking for a free ID to check the appropriate box, you should refrain from offering the free version to customers who do not ask for it.”

The “if they don’t ask, don’t help” policy could simply be read as an effort to save the state a few bucks — to keep some of the $28 per ID card fee coming in from those residents who have previously purchased them for other needs. Since July, when the law went into effect, the state has issued 8,000 new IDs and 10,300 renewals. Of those 18,300 cards, 59 percent, or about 10,800, were issued at no cost. That indicates there may have been an erosion in DMV revenue since the paid IDs dropped to 7,500. At $28 apiece, that represents something in the neighborhood of $210,000 in “lost” revenue.

Democrats, however, often see conspiracies, much in the same way Republicans have nightmares about voter fraud stealing elections. Scot Ross, head of the liberal One Wisconsin Now, called Kreiser’s memo a “smoking gun” and filed a request for all DOT memos relating to the voter ID policy. 

We’re not ready to smoke that. Our guess is that his hunt will come up empty, and this policy was more about preserving revenue.

But there is something off about the Kreiser memo, and it is this: our government should be encouraging its citizens to vote. This policy does not do that. 

Participatory government works best when people do just that — participate — when they run for office, serve on committees — and when they vote. That participation engenders more buy-in and more confidence in government itself.

Gov. Scott Walker should disabuse the DOT from having a “don’t tell if they don’t ask” policy and direct them to assist all customers (and voters) whenever and however possible.

The policy of Wisconsin should be to enfranchise and encourage all legitimate voters.

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