By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – An attorney challenging Wisconsin’s new requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls called it “onerous and unreasonable burden” during opening statements in a trial Monday over the law’s constitutionality.
The trial before Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan began even as the state Supreme Court considers whether to take the case and another one challenging the law passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker.
Flanagan last month issued a temporary injunction blocking the law from taking effect. A permanent injunction was also issued last month by Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess in a separate lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters.
In their orders blocking the law, the judges said the law was an unconstitutional impairment to the right to vote. The law’s opponents say it will disenfranchise minority groups, the poor, students and senior citizens who lack the required photo identification.
The state appeals court on March 28 asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue, saying speed was important given pending elections. But the Supreme Court has not yet said what it will do, allowing the trial that began Monday to proceed. It’s scheduled to take all week.
Attorney Richard Saks represents the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP and Voces de la Frontera, an immigrants’ rights group, and 12 individual voters who brought the lawsuit. He said Monday that the law imposed “a radical new requirement for Wisconsin’s electors” that makes voting a “rigorous ordeal.”
The law requires voters to show either a state-issued ID card, valid driver’s license, U.S. passport, a student ID that expires within two years or a military ID.
Saks said testimony from University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Kenneth Mayer will show that hundreds of thousands of voters don’t have the required ID necessary to vote.
But Assistant Attorney General Carrie Benedon said the state will produce its own experts, including a political science professor from the University of Georgia, who will show the number of people in Wisconsin without the necessary IDs is far lower and the burden placed on voters isn’t nearly as large or widespread as alleged.
A demographer will testify that there is very little difference between the number of voting-age adults in the state and those who don’t already have an ID card, Benedon said. The state will also show that problems detailed by voters in getting the required ID could have been easily corrected or were overblown, she said.
Supporters of the law say it is needed to combat voter fraud. Critics contend that the type of voter fraud the law is meant to prevent is extremely rare, and that it is really intended to stifle turnout among groups who typically vote Democrat.
The first testimony came from a videotaped interview with Ruthelle Frank, 84, of Brokaw, Wis., who said she does not have a birth certificate. That is required in order for her to obtain a state ID card required to vote. In the interview shown in court, Frank said she has voted in nearly every election since 1948 but could not under requirements in the new law.
The Legislature passed its voter ID law last year and it went into effect for the state’s February spring primary. Few problems were reported then, but critics said that was because of the low turnout.
The judges’ orders blocking the photo ID requirement kept it from being in place for the April 3 presidential primary. But two other elections are looming. May 8 is the primary for six recall elections against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. The general election is June 5.
Flanagan drew heat from Republicans because he signed the Walker recall petition in November. Walker is named as a defendant in the lawsuit and is a supporter of the law.
Fifteen states have voter ID laws, but Wisconsin’s was seen as one of the most restrictive.
Two other federal lawsuits challenging Wisconsin’s law are also pending.