Voter ID challenges continue, but take yours to the polls

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

“Bring it to the ballot,” Wisconsin election officials are telling voters, reminding them of the mandate instituted on Gov. Scott Walker’s watch to present photo IDs at the polls this spring.

Meanwhile, opponents continue to bring challenges to the measures enacted in multiple states as part of a right-wing campaign to restrict access to the ballot box.

The highest-profile challenge is being waged in North Carolina, where a six-day trial ended on Feb. 1 and a federal judge’s decision may not arrive before early voting begins on March 3 for the March 15 primary.

The legal battle in North Carolina involves multiple lawsuits brought by the NAACP, the U.S. Justice Department, the Advancement Project and others challenging the state’s photo ID mandate for voters as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Lawyers argued during the trial that more than 220,000 registered voters in North Carolina lack a qualifying ID and that black voters are more than twice as likely as white voters to lack one of the required ID cards. 

Justice Department attorney Catherine Meza argued the GOP lawmakers advanced the legislation in 2013 knowing many black voters lacked ID cards, a sign of intentional discrimination in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Witnesses testified to the hardships and complications they faced in applying for photo ID cards, including Rosanell Eaton, a plaintiff in the case. The 94-year-old voter told the court she made 10 trips to state offices, driving more than 200 miles, in an effort to get a photo ID card. She was caught in a bureaucratic mess because of disparities in how her name is spelled on various documents.

“The photo ID provision is part of a calculated strategy to limit the political participation of voters of color,” said Penda D. Hair of the Advancement Project. “It is Jim Crow disrobed.”

More than 30 states have adopted photo ID requirements for voters, passing legislation drafted, promoted and sponsored by members of the business-beholden American Legislative Exchange Council.

In North Carolina, and also Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers have instituted a range of other measures intended to limit voting opportunities, including reducing access to early voting.

These lawmakers claim their intent is to reduce voter fraud.

But the record shows such fraud is rare.

“Even if you were motivated to influence the outcome of an election, voter impersonation is not a rational, reasonable thing for someone to do,” said Lorraine Minnite, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and a witness in the North Carolina case. “Attempting to commit voter fraud in front of poll workers, whose job it is to detect fraud, is like attempting to pickpocket a police officer.”

Wisconsin’s photo ID law also was challenged in federal court. An appeals court upheld the 2011 law and last March the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, ending that legal fight.

The High Court’s decision prompted advocacy groups and the state elections agency to educate voters about the mandate.

In early February, the state Government Accountability Board re-launched the “Bring It to the Ballot” campaign.

“Voter ID is back and voters need to be prepared to bring their IDs to the polling place,” Kevin Kennedy, the state’s chief election official, stated in a news release. “The campaign’s message is that most people already have the ID they need to vote. If they don’t have one, they can get a free ID for voting at the DMV, even if they don’t have some documents, like a birth certificate.”

GAB spent about $700,000 on a photo ID campaign in 2011–12 — when the statute was on hold pending the legal challenge — but legislators didn’t budget for a campaign this year, even though the law will be applied for the first time in statewide voting.