February 17, 2015

Voting rights advocates are hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up Wisconsin’s voter ID law, one of the most stringent in the country.

“There are a lot of barriers that Wisconsin’s law imposes on voters that have not been resolved,” said attorney Karyn Rotker of the ACLU of Wisconsin, which is among the groups asking the court to review the voter ID law. “We hope that the Supreme Court will make sure that voting rights are protected.”

The law, passed in spring 2011 and only in effect during one low-turnout election, has had a tumultuous legal history. As it was challenged in state and federal courts, it was put on hold, then suddenly revived by a federal appeals court just before last November’s general election—and put on hold once again, this time by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The law’s advocates, including state Attorney General Brad Schimel, say Wisconsin’s photo ID requirements are close enough to Indiana’s, which were validated by the Supreme Court as constitutional. Besides, the law is needed to combat supposedly widespread voter fraud, Schimel argued, and ensure that voters have confidence in election results. Therefore, the justices don’t need to take up Wisconsin’s law.

“While voter photo ID laws are controversial, they should not be,” Schimel argues in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court Feb. 6.

But voting rights advocates who oppose voter ID—led by the ACLU of Wisconsin and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)—counter that Wisconsin’s law is much more stringent than Indiana’s, violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and does nothing to combat voter-impersonation fraud, which is extremely rare. They say that the many voter ID laws springing up around the country require the Supreme Court’s attention, and Wisconsin has the most robust case.

“This case raises issues of profound national importance regarding the constitutional and statutory limits on a state’s ability to restrict voting rights by requiring photo identification to vote,” the ACLU-led brief states.

An estimated 300,000 qualified Wisconsin voters, or about 9% of the voting population, lack a photo ID or the underlying documents needed for a voter ID that could permit them to vote, according to testimony accepted by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Lynn Adelman in April 2014. Those disenfranchised voters are disproportionately racial or linguistic minorities, low income or elderly or live with disabilities.

In addition, Wisconsin is woefully underserved by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), where voters are supposed to obtain their IDs. According to research by the One Wisconsin Institute, only three DMV offices are open on weekends and most are open only two or three days per week. And although Wisconsin is 50% larger than Indiana, we only have 92 DMV offices, compared to Indiana’s 140.


Key Conservative Judge Has a Change of Heart


Bolstering the voting rights advocates’ case is the fact that a key federal appeals court judge—Richard Posner, a conservative Reagan appointee who wrote the majority opinion supporting Indiana’s law in 2008—has had a change of heart, now concluding that voter ID laws are merely ways to suppress the votes of those who oppose the party that enacts strict voter ID requirements—the Republican Party.

Posner issued a scathing critique of strict voter ID laws, including Wisconsin’s, when he wanted the entire 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear Wisconsin’s voter ID challenge. But Posner could only muster five votes on the 10-member court. That allowed the decision of a three-member panel, made up of Republican appointees, to stand in support of the law.

“There is evidence both that voter-impersonation fraud is extremely rare and that photo ID requirements for voting, especially of the strict variety found in Wisconsin, are likely to discourage voting,” Posner wrote. “This implies that the net effect of such requirements is to impede voting by people easily discouraged from voting, most of whom probably lean Democratic.”

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