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Federal appeals court lifts stay against Wisconsin voter ID law

A federal appeals court in Chicago reinstated Wisconsin's voter photo identification law on Sept. 12, just hours after three Republican-appointed judges heard arguments on reactivating the hotly debated law in time for the November election.

While reinstating the law on Sept. 12, the court did not issue a full opinion, saying it would do that "in due course."

In a brief order, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said, "The State of Wisconsin may, if it wishes ... enforce the photo ID requirement in this November's elections."

Wisconsin officials wasted no time in saying they would do just that.

"We are taking every step to fully implement the voter photo ID law for the November general election," said Kevin Kennedy, the state's top election official. "We are now focused on communicating with local election officials and voters, and will have more information about the details next week."

Wisconsin's conservative Republican governor, Scott Walker, heralded the court's decision as a victory for his state.

"Voter ID is a common sense reform that protects the integrity of our voting process," he said in a statement released by his office. "Today's ruling makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat."

Many Democrats expressed outrage.

"This ruling will disenfranchise Wisconsin voters and lower voter turnout in this fall's election," Democratic state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, of Milwaukee, said in a statement.

She also worried the bid to implement the law less than two months before the Nov. 4 election would cause confusion among election officials and voters.

A lower court judge, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman struck the law down as unconstitutional in April, saying it unfairly burdens poor and minority voters who may lack such identification. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked the 7th Circuit to overturn that ruling.

During an hourlong hearing on Sept. 12, the panel sounded skeptical about depictions of the law as discriminatory.

Under the 2011 measure, those arriving at polling stations must produce a government-issued ID with a photo to vote. Because of legal challenges, the requirement had not been enforced since the February 2012 primary.

Similar disputes have arisen in nearly a dozen other states, including Pennsylvania and Texas. Republicans who back such laws say they're designed to combat voter fraud. Critics say they're crafted to keep Democratic-leaning constituencies — such as minorities and poor people — from voting.

During arguments, Assistant Wisconsin Attorney General Clayton Kawski told the panel noted he had to show ID to enter the courthouse. If photo IDs are required for getting into some buildings or onto a plane, Kawski suggested, they should be required for something far more important — an election.

But an attorney for civil rights groups said there's no proof of any notable election fraud in Wisconsin. John Ulin shot back at proponents who say the law would engender voter confidence saying, "The law achieves the opposite effect."

In issuing an injunction against the law in April, Adelman found that 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin didn't have the proper ID. Adelman noted the 2010 gubernatorial race was decided by about 125,000 votes.

During arguments, Judge Frank Easterbrook, a Ronald Reagan appointee, cited figures that 2.4 percent of whites in Wisconsin can't obtain the needed ID to vote, while 4.5 percent of blacks can't. He asked whether that 2 percent gap between whites and blacks makes the law discriminatory.

"The answer to your question is that it can and, in this case, it does," Ulin responded.

The other two judges on the panel were Diane Sykes and John Tinder, both appointees of Republican President George W. Bush.

In a statement, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt said, "The Seventh Circuit Court just turned back the clock on democracy by giving the green light to the voter suppressing Voter ID law. This law will disfranchise countless Wisconsinites and block citizens from freely participating in our democracy.  This is a desperate attempt by Gov. Walker to rig elections. In Wisconsin, we should be encouraging people to get involved and take part in elections, not putting up roadblocks and barriers for people to cast their ballot."

He continued, "No matter what, the union movement is working hard every day to educate and inform voters about this crucial election."

The ACLU brought the federal challenge to the law. 

Chris Ahmuty, the ACLU of Wisconsin's executive director, said on Sept. 12, "We are very disappointed in the irresponsible decision to lift the injunction against Voter ID, which will cause chaos and disruption for voters and elections workers for the November election.  The state has not demonstrated it is prepared to make this new ID scheme work. The new procedures were presented at the last second and it is unclear whether or how they will work in time to ensure that eligible voters are actually able to vote. It has not demonstrated how it will train 1,852 municipal clerks and tens of thousands of poll workers, as well as notifying voters of the new rules. We will continue to review and closely monitor this decision."

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