MADISON, Wis. — They call her the “ID Lady.”
Wearing a black T-shirt, with large block letters on one side saying “Ask Me” and “About Voter ID” on the other, Molly McGrath moved back to her native state of Wisconsin last year with the mission of helping people vote.
For McGrath, that dedication includes navigating homeless people through the voter registration form, helping people new to Wisconsin get an in-state driver’s license, arranging free cab rides to the DMV and even personally driving people to where they can get the required ID.
She also helps explain the complex and seemingly ever-changing election laws in Wisconsin. This will be the first presidential election where voters are required to show photo ID, a law passed by Republicans that has survived a series of court challenges from liberals.
“There’s a tremendous amount of unawareness and confusion about the law,” McGrath said on a late summer morning inside a church near the state Capitol where she was helping a steady stream of people register. “You can’t help but think, is this confusion a bug or part of the design?”
Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who swept into power in 2011 quickly passed a law requiring photo IDs at the polls, arguing it was needed to combat fraud despite scant evidence of any widespread voting irregularities.
They didn’t stop there.
They also restricted early voting hours to the two weeks before an election with no weekend hours and a limit of one location per municipality. That was a particular blow to Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two largest and most Democratic cities, which had expansive early voting.
Liberals fought the changes and in July won big when a federal court struck down more than a dozen Wisconsin election laws championed by Walker and Republicans. The judge said limits on early voting times and locations “intentionally discriminates on the basis of race.”
“I reach this conclusion because I am persuaded that this law was specifically targeted to curtail voting in Milwaukee without any other legitimate purpose,” Judge James Peterson said.
Madison and Milwaukee moved quickly to begin early voting Monday.
And while he didn’t strike down the voter ID law, Peterson did require the state’s DMV to quickly issue credentials to anyone trying to obtain a free ID but lacking the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, needed to get it. A federal appeals court has put on hold a separate ruling that would have allowed those without IDs to sign affidavits at the polls attesting to their identity.
Both sides are bracing for a close election, where turnout — or the lack of an acceptable photo ID for a large number of voters — could tip the scales.
In a 2014 ruling striking down the voter ID law, which was later overturned, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman estimated that 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin lacked a required ID. For context, Walker won re-election in 2014 by about 137,000 votes and Ron Johnson defeated Russ Feingold in the 2010 Senate race by just over 105,000 votes.
And in 2000 and 2004 the presidential race was decided by the tiniest of margins — about 6,000 votes in 2000 and 11,000 in 2004.
The latest Marquette University Law School poll showed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton running about even in the state. It also showed Feingold leading the incumbent Johnson by 6 points in the hotly contested Senate race.
That makes every vote all the more crucial. The state Elections Commission is trying to spread the word about the law with radio and TV public service announcements, online display and video ads, pre-show advertising at movie theaters, bus ads and Facebook ads.
Campaigns, political parties and advocates like VoteRiders are also trying to spread the word to people like Duane Dahl. He didn’t have a photo ID until McGrath came along. She works with VoteRiders, which helps low-income and people of color get IDs and registered to vote.
Dahl, who has been homeless at times in Madison, said he was confused about the laws, what he needed to get an ID, and where to go. But in March he got his ID and voted in primaries in April and August.
“I got lucky,” Dahl said. “Other people have had a huge struggle trying to get ID.”
Matthew Kurtz, 45, is homeless and hasn’t voted since he was 18. After helping him register, McGrath reminded him he’ll need his ID on Election Day to actually cast a ballot.
Dahl said he’ll pay more attention to politics now that he can actually have a say in who gets elected.
“If you don’t vote you don’t have a right to be crying or complaining,” Dahl said.
Vietnam veteran Mike Battles, 70, said he’s voted in “every election since Johnson.” He has an ID and is registered to vote, but he recently moved. Battles sought McGrath’s help in getting his registration changed so he can vote at his new address.
Battles said he was motivated to vote for Clinton.
“I don’t want to see Trump elected because the middle class and lower will suffer,” he said.
While McGrath is passionate about her work she tries to remain nonpartisan. When another potential voter tells McGrath “I’m scared of Trump” she laughs it off.
“I don’t care who you vote for,” she says, “as long as you vote.”
This story has been corrected to show latest Marquette University Law School poll has Feingold leading Johnson by 6 points in the Senate race instead of within the margin of error.