Civil rights alliance weighs in with high court on voter ID

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

A broad alliance of civil rights groups representing voters most affected by Wisconsin’s photo ID law pressed the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the measure enacted during Gov. Scott Walker’s first term.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice, meanwhile, are asking the high court to reject the appeal.

The case, Frank v. Walker, is pending before the Supreme Court, on appeal filed after the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the statute last October. After the appellate ruling, challengers secured from the Supreme Court a temporary hold that kept the law from being implemented for the 2014 midterm election. However, the high court has not indicated whether it will hear the case on merit.

Earlier in February, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel asked the justices to let the appeals ruling stand. He wrote in his brief that Act 23 does not place an undue burden on voters: “In Wisconsin, as everywhere, the overwhelming majority of voters already have qualifying ID. For those who lack ID, obtaining one and bringing it to the polling place is generally no more of a burden than the process of voting itself.”

But the plaintiffs — including the League of United Latin American Citizens of Wisconsin, Cross Lutheran Church, Wisconsin League of Young Voters Education Fund, and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council of the AFL-CIO — disagree. They maintain the law, which requires voters to present specific types of government photo ID, disenfranchises Wisconsinites, because an estimated 9 percent of all registered voters lack the necessary ID to vote. Many of those voters are young people, older citizens and minorities.

A flurry of friend-of-the-court briefs filed in mid-February support the challenge to the legislation, which is similar to a model bill drafted and circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council backed by conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch.

“The briefs filed in the Supreme Court send a resounding message about the urgency of addressing restrictive voter ID laws in our nation’s highest court,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which is challenging Act 23. “There are approximately 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters at risk of losing their right to vote if this law is not overturned. These citizens are disproportionately people of color, and in a real democracy, we all deserve equal access to the fundamental right to vote.”

Friends include: the Congressional Black Caucus, Latino Justice PRLDEF, National Council of La Raza, Hispanic National Bar Association, Hispanic Federation, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, League of Women Voters, The National Council on Independent Living, OurTime.org, Rock the Vote, Color of Change, The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, the Cyber Privacy Project, the Civil Rights Clinic at Howard Law School and One Wisconsin Institute.

One Wisconsin’s brief argues that a severe lack of access to the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles creates a barrier to ballot access and makes the state agency a “virtual gatekeeper to ballot access for thousands of legal voters.”

The brief states that the state has 92 DMVs spread across 56,145 square miles, leaving roughly 50,000 voters without access to public or private transportation more that 10 miles from a DMV service center. 

In addition, most of Wisconsin’s DMV service centers are open limited hours. Only a third are open five days a week; most open two-three days a week; some only open a day or two a month; and one is open only six days each year.

One Wisconsin legal counsel Rebecca Mason, who wrote the brief, stressed that Wisconsin citizens have significantly less access to DMVs to obtain a state identification than citizens in Indiana, where the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a voter ID law.

“The politicians that passed the Wisconsin photo ID law and those charged with administering it are well aware of the barriers a lack of DMV access creates for otherwise legal voters,” concluded Ross.

In another brief, the League of Women Voters encourages the court to hear the Wisconsin case, but to wait to hear arguments until a similar challenge from Texas reaches the justices.

“Strict voter ID laws do nothing to improve elections, and they cause confusion and other problems for many voters. In some cases, they make it impossible for a qualified citizen to cast a ballot and have it counted, and that is unacceptable,” said Melanie G. Ramey, president of League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

On the docket

The case: Frank v. Walker

The questions:

• Does Wisconsin’s voter ID law violate the federal Equal Protection Clause if the evidentiary record establishes that the law substantially burdens the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of the state’s voters and that the law does not advance a legitimate state interest?

• Does Wisconsin’s voter ID law violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act by disproportionately burdening and abridging the voting rights of African-American and Latino voters compared to white voters?

The status: Pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

— Lisa Neff