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Gov. Scott Walker's administration is working on finalizing a plan to close as many as 10 offices where people can obtain driver's licenses in order to expand hours elsewhere and come into compliance with new requirements that voters show photo IDs at the polls.
One Democratic lawmaker said Friday it appeared the decisions were based on politics, with the department targeting offices for closure in Democratic areas and expanding hours for those in Republican districts.
A high-ranking DOT official rejected that claim, saying the changes were based on economics, not politics.
Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, called on the state Department of Transportation to reconsider its plants to close the Fort Atkinson DMV center. The department plans to expand by four hours a week the hours of a center about 30 minutes away in Watertown.
Jorgensen said he was concerned doing that would discourage people from Fort Atkinson from participating in elections.
"What the heck is going on here?" Jorgensen said. "Is politics at play here?"
Transportation Department executive assistant Reggie Newson denied that politics was behind the office closure plan, saying the decisions were being made based on what made the most economic sense.
"This has nothing to do with politics," he said. "We're trying to make sure that we can provide service in each county statewide efficiently."
Department officials briefed lawmakers who represent areas affected by the closures this week. Newson said no final decisions have been made, but they plan to implement the changes starting in January.
The recently enacted state budget requires that DMV driver license and ID card services be offered in all 72 counties at least 20 hours a week. Currently, only 30 counties have offices that meet that 20-hour requirement.
Once the changes are made, there will be 625 more hours of DMV service to the public a week or about 32,000 hours more a year, said Kristina Boardman, the department's director of field services who is overseeing the plan.
Starting next year, voters must present a valid driver's license or other acceptable photo identification in order to vote. Critics of that new requirement have said it would be unconstitutional if courts determined voters couldn't easily access DMV centers where they can obtain the ID cards required in order to vote.
The state currently operates 88 DMV centers but it would drop to 78 under the tentative plan, Newson said. Many of those targeted for closure, like the one in Fort Atkinson, are temporary sites and not leased spaces, like the larger office in Watertown, he said.
Under Wisconsin's law, voters will have to present a driver's license, state ID, passport, military ID, naturalization papers or tribal ID in order to vote. College students could vote with an ID from their school as long as it has their signature and an expiration date that falls within two years of the card's issuance.
Walker has said he believes the law is constitutional and will survive any legal challenge.
Sixteen Democratic U.S. senators, including Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, asked the U.S. Justice Department last month to look into whether voting rights are being jeopardized in states with similar photo identification requirements.
The lawmakers expressed concern that millions of people without a government-issued ID, like older people, students, low-income voters and minorities, may be blocked from voting.