The Slatest

Federal Judge Strikes Blow to Wisconsin’s Strict Voter ID Law

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose efforts to defend his state’s stringent voter ID law suffered a serious setback on Tuesday.

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On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman significantly weakened a key provision of Wisconsin’s stringent voter ID law, prohibiting the state from enforcing the measure in a manner that would effectively suppress thousands of votes. The law—supported almost exclusively by Republicans, purportedly to prevent voter fraud—requires citizens to present a state-approved ID card before voting. Under Adelman’s ruling, voters with no ID will have a legal right in November to instead sign an affidavit declaring that it would take “unreasonable effort” for them to obtain an ID, and then be allowed to vote.

Under Supreme Court precedent, Wisconsin is allowed to enact voter ID laws—but as Adelman explains, these measures cannot impose an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to vote. Wisconsin’s law does, especially for low-income and minorities residents. The act’s strict requirements force voters to go to “unreasonable lengths” to acquire these cards, compelling them to gather extensive documentation and make multiple trips to a government agency. Faced with these substantial obstacles, many poor voters are essentially locked out of the voting booth—a constitutionally intolerable result.

In his ruling, Adelman also implies that the state employees tasked with providing ID cards often add unfair and unforeseeable stumbling blocks that prevent voters from qualifying for IDs. For instance, Adelman describes the disturbing plight of one elderly Wisconsin man whose Mississippi birth certificate and federal social security card contained a slight discrepancy in the spelling of his name. The state agency informed him that he would need to travel to Mississippi, retrieve a new, corrected birth certificate, and return to Wisconsin before he could get an ID card and vote. Eventually, the man’s daughter persuaded the state to let her father sign an affidavit testifying to his real name. He had suffered a stroke, however, and could not write, so his daughter, who had power of attorney, signed the affidavit for her father. But because the affidavit contained the daughter’s name, the state rejected it, denying the man an ID card and, thus, his right to vote. In all, the daughter spent five months trying, unsuccessfully, to obtain a proper ID for her father.

These and similar testimonials, Adelman writes, prove that Wisconsin’s law unduly burdens many citizens’ voting rights in a way that simply cannot comport with the Constitution. The state surely has an interest in preventing voter fraud—but these interests “do not justify disenfranchising voters who cannot with reasonable effort obtain ID.” And, Adelman adds, “there is virtually no voter-impersonation fraud in Wisconsin” despite GOP lawmakers’ clamoring to the contrary. Adelman even cites Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court’s recent abortion decision, to support his contention that “where a state law burdens a constitutional right, the state must produce evidence supporting its claim that the burden is necessary to further the state’s claimed interests.” In other words, Wisconsin may not cite a phantom threat to justify revoking a real constitutional right.

Rather than invalidate the entire law—a ruling that would likely be reversed on appeal—Adelman crafts a canny, pragmatic solution. Wisconsin, he held, must provide voters with an affidavit they can sign at the polls testifying that they are “eligible voters who [are] unable to obtain ID with reasonable effort.” On the affidavit, they must check off the reason why they couldn’t get an ID—lack of transportation or necessary documents, disability or illness, family responsibilities—or write in their explanation. Voters’ declarations on these affidavits will be made under penalty of perjury.

All in all, Adelson’s ruling is a considerable triumph for voting rights advocates and, more specifically, the ACLU’s voting rights project, which launched this case way back in 2011. The decision may not be a complete victory, but it will secure thousands of Wisconsinites’ right to vote—and its carefully crafted, practical solution will likely be difficult to overturn on appeal. Count this as a win for constitutional rights, and yet another loss for blatantly pretextual, absurdly dishonest, state-sponsored efforts to revoke Americans’ fundamental rights.