January 25, 2011

The new session of the Wisconsin Legislature has barely begun and legislators are pushing a bill that will require all voters to present a government-issued photo ID every time they go to the polls. The bill (Senate Bill 6 - PDF) will be heard by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Elections Jan. 26. The ACLU has opposed these deeply flawed laws in other states. But the law as proposed in Wisconsin is the worst and most restrictive we've ever seen. To deny potentially thousands of voters the right to freely cast a ballot to fix a non-existent problem is unconscionable in a free society. While proponents of this bill say it will fix vote fraud, the state Senate Committee on Transportation and Elections will hear from voters and advocates who will testify on why the plan will have a discriminatory impact on minorities and will be a costly and ineffective attempt to prevent fraud.

“On a national level, the ACLU has worked to fight photo ID requirements on behalf of the people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities and students who are less likely to have a current state drivers license or state identification,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Associate Director Renee Shavers. “But the law that has been introduced in Wisconsin is the worst and most restrictive we’ve seen.  To deny potentially thousands of voters the right to freely cast a ballot based on the non-existent problem of so-called voter fraud is unconscionable in a free society.”

Citizens who tend not to have current or state-issued photo identification include a disproportionate number of people of color as well as the elderly, people with disabilities, those who rely on public transportation, and mobile populations such as college students. The ACLU of Wisconsin opposes SB 6 because it would restrict the free and fair voting rights of eligible voters while having a discriminatory effect on minorities.

Even if the bill allows for individuals to obtain identification free of charge, the proof-of-identity documents required often cost money and take time to obtain (see the state DMV's website on the documents generally needed to acquire an ID card and specifically those required for proof of identity). Additional barriers can be experienced by citizens who face the circular challenge of obtaining documents for their photo ID when a photo ID is required to obtain those documents.

When individuals, especially low-income workers and those who rely on public transportation face the costs of taking time off of work, traveling to motor vehicle departments with limited locations and hours in Wisconsin and paying fees for certified documents to obtain a photo ID simply for the freedom to vote, the ACLU of Wisconsin pledges to act on behalf of those disenfranchised by the proposed law. “We hope that lawmakers will see that their plan to offer ‘free’ IDs is not truly free, for individual voters and for the state taxpayers,” said Shavers. “If even a minority of eligible voters become disenfranchised by this law, we will oppose it. But all voters, even those who have drivers licenses, should speak out against this attempt to place barriers on the right to vote in free and fair elections in Wisconsin.”

Proponents of this measure exaggerate the instances of illegal votes cast in Wisconsin. For instance, according to the Brennan Center for Justice report on the considerable effort and resources spent to prosecute fraudulent voters in Wisconsin and nationwide after the 2004 elections only 18 cases of substantiated illegal voting led to convictions in our state. Most polling place problems are attributable to data entry or human errors with registration lists. None of the prosecuted cases would be avoided by requiring a photo ID to vote at the polls on Election Day.

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