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Blocking the vote | GOP's voter suppression campaign ready for polls

The first year Ruthelle Frank voted, "Kiss Me, Kate" premiered in the theater, moviegoers buzzed about Technicolor and Harry S. Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey in what is hailed as the greatest election upset of all time.

The 84-year-old resident of Brokaw, Wis., has voted in every election since 1948. And Frank intends to vote this year – provided she can get into a polling booth.

Frank is one of the plaintiffs in the federal suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin against the state's new voter photo ID law.

Frank is an eligible registered voter in the state, but she has no photo ID and lacks the certified copy of her birth certificate that's needed to obtain one.

Some might wonder why a woman who has lived in the same place for more than eight decades and has served on the village board since 1996 lacks a state photo ID.

The answer is: It's complicated.

And complications, along with discrimination and disenfranchisement, are what civil rights advocates have tried to eliminate from the voting system for years – since long before the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 2008 election, with the highest turnout in a presidential election in 60 years, suggested significant success in that effort. A wave of young voters went to the polls and results showed the most racially diverse turnout in U.S. history.

Block the vote

But with the rise of the Tea Party movement after that election, conservative state legislators moved to restrict voter access with reduced early voting periods, restrictions on registration drives and, most commonly, new requirements for photo IDs.

Fourteen states enacted voter suppression bills after the 2010 elections. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which gets funding from Wisconsin's political barons, the Koch brothers, provided templates.

"The 47-year-old Voting Rights Act has stood the test of time, but there are new obstacles to the ballot springing up in today's America," said Democratic National Committee vice chair Donna Brazile.

"The latest vogue in anti-suffrage legislation is mandatory photo ID laws," she added.

Defenders of the new laws, citing arguments largely from ALEC, maintain the restrictions are needed to combat voter fraud.

Detractors, noting the measures were pushed in states that were highly competitive in 2008, say there clearly is a GOP effort to keep young people, minorities and the poor – traditionally Democratic voters – from casting ballots. 

"There has never been a single prosecution or conviction of a Wisconsin voter misrepresenting his or her identity at the polls," said Milwaukee NAACP president James Hall. "This law is nothing but vote suppression of minority voters."

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 15 percent of low-income voting-age citizens, 18 percent of young eligible voters and 25 percent of black eligible voters do not have current photo IDs.

Separate studies show transgender citizens are less likely than the general public to have current photo IDs. The new laws, said Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, have "a devastating effect on the ability of transgender people to vote."

She added, in her recent State of the Movement address at a major activist conference, "If we do not protect the right to vote, we will not win on immigration, we will not win on non-discrimination, we will not protect affirmative action and we will not win on marriage."

Defend the vote

In defense of voting rights, activists recently lobbied at capitols in Florida and Texas, rocked the vote at a concert in Arizona and marched in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, as they marched 50 years ago.

"We have seen the greatest attack on voting rights since segregation," said NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, who attended a massive Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in Columbia.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the keynote speaker at the event, said, "The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our governance, it is the lifeblood of our democracy. And no force has proved more powerful, or more integral to the success of the great American experiment than efforts to expand the franchise. Let me be very, very clear – the arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion, not the exclusion, of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process. We must ensure that this continues."

Legal challenges to the new voter laws are being fought in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

"Wisconsin's photo ID law is the most restrictive in the country," said Stacy Harbaugh of the ACLU of Wisconsin. "In other states, a wider variety of identification is accepted. Other states also accept a signed affidavit from voters who don't have an ID. In these states, people who have concerns with the security of their ballot have the freedom to show their ID and confirm their identity to the poll worker. However, no one is not allowed to vote for not having ID."

In its 54-page Wisconsin complaint, the ACLU argues that allowing only certain types of photo ID imposes a severe burden on the right to vote in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The complaint also claims the law violates the 24th and 14th amendments because it effectively imposes an unconstitutional poll tax.

The law, signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker last May, takes effect with the Feb. 21 primary.

ACLU of Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis has cautioned "countless Wisconsin residents" – veterans, minorities, seniors, young people – may be turned away for lack of acceptable IDs. 

Concern compelled the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network to sue, alleging the state Legislature lacked the authority to enact the photo ID law. They argue that the law creates an entire class of people and then denies them an essential right.

The Milwaukee NAACP, along with the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, also is challenging the law that Hall has said "disenfranchises scores of thousands of qualified African-American voters. About half of all African-Americans in Milwaukee currently lack a driver's license. This new law is tantamount to a denial of the right to vote for many."

Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera said, "The Wisconsin Constitution guarantees all citizens and Wisconsin residents the right to vote and we intend to jealously protect that right."

Frank's passion for protecting that right has made her an ACLU plaintiff at the age of 84.

She was born in her home in Brokaw in 1927 – just seven years after women secured voting rights – and her mother recorded the birth in the family Bible. The Wisconsin Register of Deeds has a record of the birth and can provide a certificate, but the record contains a misspelling of her maiden name. Before Frank can obtain an ID from the DMV, she needs to go through the process of correcting her birth record, a $200 expense.

"I should not suddenly be barred from voting just because I don't believe in paying for identification in order to vote," said Frank. "That's like a poll tax and sends this country back decades ago when it comes to civil rights."

Barbara Oden is another ACLU plaintiff. She's 57, a resident of Milwaukee and lacks the documents – a Social Security card and birth certificate – needed to obtain the photo ID required to vote. Oden's in something of a catch 22 – when she applied for a Social Security card, she was turned away because she lacked a photo ID.

Carl Ellis, 52, is another of the 17 plaintiffs in the Wisconsin suit. He resides in a homeless shelter for military veterans. He has a veterans photo ID card, but that isn't acceptable under the new law. To obtain a Wisconsin ID, the homeless veteran with no income needs to buy a copy of his birth certificate from the state of Illinois. He described the law as "un-American."

Civil rights attorney Heather Johnson of National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a partner in the ACLU suit, said the new law silences homeless people.

"With homelessness rising by 12 percent in Wisconsin since the recession began, we cannot allow the state to set this dangerous and unconscionable precedent," she said.

The Walker administration has until mid-February to respond to the ACLU complaint, and it is uncertain whether an injunction will be issued to block implementation of the law until the case is decided.

There also is the chance the U.S. Justice Department will intervene, as requested by a coalition of 22 Wisconsin legislators led by Brett Hulsey, D-Madison. 

"It is a sad day for Wisconsin when we have to ask for federal help to protect our citizens' right to vote just like civil rights leaders like Dr. King had to do in the 1960s," Hulsey said in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day statement, adding, "Welcome to Gov. Walker's Wississippi."

In the meantime, said Harbaugh, "we are still hearing from members of the public who are facing barriers to obtaining a photo ID to vote or who are paying money to obtain the documents required to get an ID to vote. Some schools are creating compliant IDs, but other students – such as technical college students – may not have an ID to vote."

And for the Feb. 21 primary, the ACLU of Wisconsin, Election Protection Coalition, NAACP, League of Women Voters and other organizations will be monitoring for complaints.

ID check…

IDs accepted at Wisconsin polling places:

• Wisconsin DOT-issued driver license, even if driving privileges are revoked or suspended.

• Wisconsin DOT-issued identification card.

• Military ID card issued by a U.S. uniformed service.

• U.S. passport.

• Certificate of naturalization issued not earlier than two years before the date of an election at which it is presented.

• Driving receipt issued by Wisconsin DOT (valid for 45 days).

• Identification card receipt issued by Wisconsin DOT (valid for 45 days).

• Identification card issued by a federally recognized Indian tribe in Wisconsin.

• Identification card issued by a Wisconsin accredited university or college that contains date of issuance, signature of student and an expiration date no later than two years after date of issuance. The ID must be accompanied by a separate document that proves enrollment.



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