MADISON (Reuters) - A Wisconsin official has discouraged state workers from volunteering information about free IDs available under a controversial voter identification law that critics complain is designed to suppress votes, a memo leaked on Wednesday showed.
The memo, provided to the press by Democratic State Senator Jon Erpenbach, was likely to fan concerns among critics of the Republican-backed law that it aimed to suppress votes of thousands of otherwise eligible Wisconsin voters.
In the memo, a top aide in the state transportation department told staffers in the motor vehicle department, which is responsible for issuing the free IDs, to "refrain from offering" them to customers who do not specifically ask for them.
"Questions on what kind of ID is needed for voting," the aide, Steven Krieser, wrote in the July 1 memo, "should be directed to the Government Accountability Board."
The voter ID law was part of a broader conservative program pushed through Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature earlier this year by Governor Scott Walker, who took office in January.
That program, which has divided the state along partisan lines and led to a record number of recall elections, has also included curbs on the collective bargaining rights of public workers, deep budget cuts and an easing of restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons.
Krieser, who confirmed the authenticity of the memo, said he was simply trying to make sure DMV employees honored the intent of lawmakers who passed the law, which does not obligate DMV workers to tell applicants they are entitled to a free ID if they plan to use it to vote.
"The DMV is applying the voter ID law that the legislature provided to it," Krieser told Reuters.
"It says the customer has to request it. So we've taken the strict reading of the statute and that's how we've implemented it. That's all that the memo was getting at."
Scot Ross, the head of One Wisconsin Now, a group opposed to the voter ID law, called the memo "a smoking gun" that proved the measure was designed to disenfranchise the poor, students and minorities, who are less likely to have state-issued identification and more likely to vote for Democrats.
Ross said his group would file an open records request with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to obtain "all communications and e-mails related to the issuance of state identification cards for the purposes of voting under the state's voter identification bill."
Advocates of voter ID laws, which have also been passed this year in Texas, Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Rhode Island, say the rules are needed to combat voter fraud.
Opponents say evidence of widespread fraud is nonexistent. The Advancement Project, a national civil rights legal group, has called the laws "the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century."
Because voters who do not assert that they are seeking the free ID will be charged a $28 fee for the document, critics see the law as illegal because it may disenfranchise voters who don't pay.
Last week, a top official with the Wisconsin state bar asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the law, which was passed by the state legislature and signed into law in May.
In her letter to Holder, Sally Stix, the chairwoman of the state bar's civil rights and liberties section, said the voter ID law, which will take effect early next year in time for spring primaries and the fall general election, should be "subjected to the highest scrutiny."
That review, she said, should include a probe of the underlying legislative process "to determine whether or not there was any unlawful intent" by lawmakers who supported the change and to see if DMV employees were doing enough to make sure prospective voters get the free cards, she said.
A 2005 University of Wisconsin study found 59 percent of Hispanic women and 55 percent of African-American men in the Milwaukee area lacked a valid state-issued photo ID.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)