Wisconsin's American Legislative Exchange Council-inspired voter ID law, which will make it harder for students and people of color to vote, is being challenged under the state constitution by the League of Women Voters.
The law requires potential voters to show a valid state-issued driver's license or identification card before they can cast a ballot, rendering many state residents ineligible to vote. Wisconsin, like thirteen other states, passed the law earlier this year based on the ALEC "model" voter ID bill.
New Voting Barriers For Many Wisconsin Residents
"We are appalled by the stories the League is hearing about the barriers people are facing in trying to get an acceptable ID," said the organization's president, Melanie G. Ramey, in a press release.
Those without the required ID include around 300,000 state university students and a staggering number of other groups -- 55 percent of all African American males and 49 percent of African American women; 46 percent of Hispanic men and 59 percent of Hispanic women; 78 percent of African American men age 18-24 and 66 percent of African American women age 18-24; 23 percent of all elderly Wisconsinites over the age of 65, and 17 percent of white men and women. Additionally, the test run of the new law led to confusion among poll workers and lines so long people left without voting -- and the same problems are expected to arise when the law is implemented next year.
Although Wisconsin's voter ID law offers free IDs, just like the ALEC bill, Wisconsin's Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices are generally only open during limited hours and only on weekdays, many are open only a few hours a month, and DMVs are not every county has a DMV office. Governor Scott Walker initially announced plans to close as many as ten DMV offices where people could obtain IDs but has since backed off that pledge.
Law Allegedly Violates Wisconsin Constitution
The law's disproportionate impact on discrete populations could make it subject to challenge under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which requires states "provide equal protection of the laws." But the League of Women Voters is bringing its suit based on the Wisconsin Constitution's strong voting rights protections, arguing the legislature exceeded its constitutional authority in enacting the law.
Article III, Section 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution provides that all state residents who are U.S. citizens and over age 18 may vote, and Section 2, according to the League's complaint, "provides the exclusive basis for which laws may be created to implement the constitutional requirements for voting." The League argues that the state constitution only permits the legislature to pass voting laws permitted under that section, which are limited to those (1) defining residency; (2) providing for voter registration; (3) providing for absentee voting; and (4) excluding felons from voting and those deemed incompetent by a court.
According to the League's attorney, Lester Pines, "The Wisconsin Constitution only allows the legislature to exclude two named classes from voting -- felons and people ruled incompetent. The new law creates a third class of citizens who may not vote -- people who do not have ID. This lawsuit challenges the legislature's authority to enact such a law," he says in a press release.
Equal Protection Challenge Still Possible
The Wisconsin Constitution's explicit protection of voting rights provided a stronger basis for which to challenge the law than under the U.S. Constitution. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a similar law passed by Indiana did not violate the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection clause.
Notably, in upholding the Indiana law, the U.S. Supreme Court's plurality decision said there was no evidence of the voter fraud the law was ostensibly intended to combat. Still, the court said such a justification was legitimate, even without evidence, and upheld the law because the voting requirements imposed a minimal burden on potential voters.
But there are significant differences between Indiana and Wisconsin. Unlike Wisconsin, where a staggering number of students and people of color will be ineligible under the law, 99 percent of Indiana's voting-age population already had the necessary identification to vote. Additionally, Indiana had DMVs in every county, many are open on weekends, and all are open on a far more regular basis than those in Wisconsin. Some believe that if Wisconsin's voter ID law survives a challenge under the state constitution, an Equal Protection lawsuit could still be successful.
ALEC Voter ID Has Swept the Nation
In the wake of the highest general election turnout in nearly 60 years in the 2008 presidential election (particularly among university students and African-Americans), ALEC's "Voter ID" legislation has been rapidly moving in state legislatures. Shortly after the election of the nation's first black president, "Preventing Election Fraud" was the cover story on the Inside ALEC magazine, and ALEC corporations and politicians voted for "model" voter legislation in 2009.
Wisconsin is one of fourteen states that passed a voter ID law based on the ALEC template in the past year. All were justified on the specter of voter fraud, which belies the statistical reality that such fraud in the U.S. is exceedingly rare. Voter ID legislation, though, will have a statistically significant effect of depriving many American citizens of their right to vote. According to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, around five million eligible voters around the country will be affected by the new laws.
The idea of limiting the number of people who vote is closely associated with ALEC's founder, Paul Weyrich. Among many of Weyrich's statements over the years tailored to advance the white fundamentalist agenda, in 1980 he told a group of religious conservatives: "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."