by Jay Heck and Jay Riestenberg
In a split decision last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said the state can require voters to produce a state-issued ID card at the polls but can’t require them to pay for it.
The ruling adds a new and confusing wrinkle to an already befuddling scenario for the November election. The state legislature has not created a mechanism for providing free-of-charge IDs to voters and the court didn’t impose one. Meanwhile, a federal district judge has blocked enforcement of the ID law on other grounds, declaring that it’s unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
Talk about a rock and a hard place.
Some clarity may come from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule before Election Day on Wisconsin’s appeal of the district court ruling striking down the ID law. If, as expected, the appellate court also rules against the law, it would be a win for Badger State voters, providing some relief from the impact of a reduction of in-person absentee voting opportunities, elimination of weekend voting, and stringent new voter registration requirements.
Among the new restrictions, Wisconsin’s Voter ID law dates to 2011 and is modeled off legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate lobby that brings state legislators and corporate lobbyists together to write and vote as equals – behind closed doors -- on “model” bills.
ALEC’s “Voter ID Act” has gained traction over the years. Wisconsin is now one of 17 states requiring voters to show some form of photo ID at the polls; more than 30 states now require voters to present some form of identification.
While proponents say voter ID laws are meant to stop fraud, research has shown that voter fraud is extremely rare, and that photo ID requirements don’t protect against it. This intuitively and practically makes sense. Every voter must sign a registry while face-to-face with an elections official, and the penalty for impersonation typically carries fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms. Photo ID, then, is a cure in search of a problem that simply does not exist.
Worse still, photo ID laws often suppress the voting rights of citizens of color, seniors, students, and those with disabilities. Roughly 11% of the American population either can’t afford or does not have access to the kind of photo ID that Wisconsin now demands – and that several other states already require. Given that the Wisconsin court found such little evidence of fraud – and, again, the kind of fraud that is not eradicated by the implementation of photo ID – it is perplexing that yet another state has put into play a law that does nothing but suppress turnout.
While the Wisconsin law is still being blocked by the federal court order, last week’s state Supreme Court ruling may leave voters scratching their heads over exactly what kind of ID they’ll need at the polls. “I think a lot of people are confused about whether it’s in effect or not,” said Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. Common Cause plans on educating voters about the law and is preparing for new voter ID legislation over the next few months.
The type of voter ID law at issue here undermines our democratic process; it creates greater obstacles to voting instead of protecting the interests of voters, particularly those who have long been at the margins of political participation. The state court seemed irritated that a federal district judge had acted before it got the chance to weigh in. But now it’s time for the 7th Circuit to demonstrate that voting issues don’t touch just on states’ rights but on fundamental protections enumerated in the federal Constitution. And those rights deserve to be upheld for every American – in every state.
Jay Heck is the executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. Jay Riestenberg is a research analyst at Common Cause in Washington, DC. This article was originally published on Common Cause's Democracy Wire.