In The News
Court challenges await GOP voter exclusion law
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted September 21, 2011
It’s most accurately known as the voter suppression law.
In routine media and legislative parlance it’s described as the voter ID law.
Under any name, in the next few months it will face a battery of lawsuits on a number of fronts arguing in federal and state courts that it disenfranchises voters, skirts voter rights language embedded in constitutional law or has been revealed by bureaucrats as a farce regulation costing taxpayers millions of dollars and causing citizens useless delays and frustrations at the polls and in the tally counting aftermath.
The normal judicial expectation of careful review has clearly been corrupted at the state’s current highest court. Federal courts tend to move slowly (and perhaps more slowly now -- so as not to be linked in the public mind with the dysfunctional state court). So the new voter confusion law may survive for a while.
That’s why a number of groups are exploring ways to educate threatened classes of voters and prepare them to deal with the new landscape (even as other groups go to court). That means helping citizens in jeopardy of losing their votes -- from students relying on currently inadequate college IDs to the elderly born at home in states like Mississippi. It includes developing money for research and expertise – and getting it all done by April.
The law goes into effect in the 2012 presidential primary, which has now been set on the same day as the widespread nonpartisan April election.
The lawsuits – and more seem on the way – will challenge different aspects of the law, according to the legal experts we’ve talked to. The challenges are likely to mystify the uninformed public -- almost as much as the new voter law has. It is unlikely the popular media is prepared or willing to provide simple clarification.
For instance, news sources keep saying the legislation was created to prevent voter fraud, without detailing that it only addresses a form of fraud for which there is no credible evidence -- in-person false voters. In other words, we’re spending millions to attack something that doesn’t exist, and are forced to rely on explanation from a media that has made a living for years screaming at readers and viewers about minor or unproven voter fraud of a much different variety.
For the public that never swallowed this bilge, there has been a more believable argument. The media has played up how it just seems “sensible” to require a photo ID of the state variety for anyone who wants to vote (with a few wrinkles to allow a few other IDs that previously required presenting proof, such as US passports, naturalization papers and the like).
That appeals to the comfortable who think driver’s license style photo IDS and supportive proofs of birth or citizenship are a slam dunk because their lifestyle zone is limited to people who possess such goods, ignoring the thousands of Wisconsin voters who don’t have similar backgrounds, means, circumstances or conditions.
To the naked eyes of families who know the hardships involved -- for the disabled who never drove, for those who have lost all their identification through tragedy or poverty, for the elderly or refugees whose records if any are distant dim memories -- the bill is simply an effort by the GOP majority to make it difficult for categories of voters they think will vote for Democrats, disenfranchising rural, minority, elderly, student and other clusters.
Obvious this may be, but what makes it hard to prove in court is how the morally unconscionable may be legally permissible.
The legislature and Gov. Walker used squads of lawyers to fashion this serpent and modeled much of the bill after political gimmicks from other squads of lawyers working for ALEC, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.
Yet after all that work – several lawyers on both sides told me – the bill’s creators may have overthought the legal wrinkles they employed, which may expose their real motives to thoughtful judges presented with accurate evidence.
Moreover, the ALEC forces can’t control the ongoing excess, zeal, even gloating of some of the conservative bureaucrats interpreting this confusing law –- confusing even to legal experts in the field. Such crass behavior has also opened up the voter bill to more court challenges.
And this time they are facing some thoughtful opposition, lawyers who have learned lessons from past rulings. For instance, the GOP majority sought to emulate a photo ID voter bill ruled legal a few years ago in Indiana, but the Wisconsin lawmakers neglected the care taken in that state to address suppression concerns, provide enough DMVs, etc.
That appearance of care for the disenfranchised brought a cautious US Supreme Court decision that Indiana was OK because very few voters were harmed, though new university level research suggests that the justices just weren’t shown the full extent of disenfranchisement.
Wisconsin lawyering wants to avoid that oversight. They are also aided by the growing evidence of a more obvious effort by Walker’s legions to suppress certain voters, to impose what many regard as an illegal poll tax on the right to vote and to circumvent little known elements of the state constitution. So the calls for injunctive relief are likely to come in sections and only after research and convincing evidence in the form of aggrieved citizens.
The ACLU wants to talk to voters from across the state who are having serious problems getting an ID (or the underlying documents they need to get an ID).
Among those sought are people who can’t get ID because their state of birth requires that you have a photo ID to get a birth certificate; people – most likely elderly African-Americans - born in southern states at a time when many births were not officially registered; those with significant problems and virtually no income to get the documents needed to get an ID; those who are really unable to get to a DMV office (persons with disabilities and persons in remote rural areas lacking transport); persons who have no proof of residence (like homeless persons, especially those not in shelters, and persons who live in someone else’s house and lack documentary proof in their own names); transient persons without a stable home or address documents, and students, especially in technical colleges, who don’t have other kinds of Wisconsin ID (especially students with out-of-state driver licenses).
ACLU is circulating a flyer (printed in the Take Action section of milwakeelabor.org) and setting up a phone number and email -- (414) 272-4032, extension 216, and email@example.com – to collect case studies, which will be essential if the ACLU decides to go to court on this basic human rights issue.
In another case, the League of Women Voters is expected to soon file a state court challenge citing a violation of the state constitution -- in fact, the league’s lawyer suggests that all those high-falutin’ lawyers never addressed the paragraph on voting rights involved. Several legal experts say the challenge is not frivolous, though how it will survive in the current state court system may be an exercise in dubious optimism.
Other groups are readying in the wings, and some suggest that another sort of legal challenge will emerge around that infamous memo from a Department of Transportation muckamuck informing employees not to volunteer the information that the usual $28 fee for a state photo ID card is waived if the person applying checks a box or asks for voting purposes – a fee waiver made available under the new law to avoid the appearance of an illegal poll tax.
Only . . . if DMV workers are ordered not to tell voters about the free version, aren’t they undermining the intent – or exposing that the free version was simply inserted as a gimmick? Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized this memo as underscoring the pretense, especially after a state employee was fired for simply advising fellow workers in an email what the policy was and what any visitor to a DMV should know in advance.