Wisconsin voter ID law heads to trial

November 4, 2013
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a voter identification bill into law in 2011 (Dan Reiland/AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, File)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a voter identification bill into law in 2011 (Dan Reiland/AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, File)

Opponents of a Wisconsin law requiring voters to show photo identifications at the polls will have their day in federal court Monday in a case likely to have an impact on other states that have amended their voting laws in recent years.

Civil-rights groups sued over the Wisconsin law, initially passed in 2011, after a 77-year old woman couldn’t provide the documents necessary to receive a Wisconsin driver’s license. The Advancement Project, a voting-rights group based in Washington, contends the voter ID law places an outsized burden on minorities.

The case also includes a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says elderly and low-income voters are disproportionately impacted.

The case is the first to come to trial after the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act used to determine whether states must seek Justice Department approval before making changes to election laws.

The plaintiffs are challenging the voter ID rule under Section 2 of the VRA, a section the Supreme Court has not ruled on since affirming its constitutionality in 1984, which prohibits election rules that have discriminatory effects. Most Section 2 cases in recent years have involved redistricting, not voter identification laws.

“There’s been a nationwide, unprecedented wave of these voter suppression laws,” said James Eichner, the managing director of programs at the Advancement Project and one of the attorneys who will argue the case. “Since the Shelby decision, Section 5 is gone as a tool, so the main tool the Advancement Project and other groups are using is Section 2.”

If the Wisconsin lawsuit succeeds in halting the state law, voting-rights groups are likely to take the Section 2 argument to courts in other states. The Wisconsin law remains on hold until the court rules.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year, Texas and South Carolina have indicated they will enforce voter identification laws that had been blocked by courts. North Carolina passed a voter identification law earlier this year, and Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama will also enforce new voter ID laws.

“They barely waited until the ink was dry on the Shelby decision to assign it to law,” Eichner said. “These states have seized upon the opening provided by Shelby and are seeking to basically disenfranchise voters of color.”

Voting-rights groups are also suing over the North Carolina law, while a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s voter ID rule is just wrapping up.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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