By DINESH RAMDE
MILWAUKEE— A federal judge in Milwaukee struck down Wisconsin’s voter Identification law Tuesday, saying a requirement that voters show a state-issued photo ID at the polls imposes an unfair burden on poor and minority voters.
Eastern District Judge Lynn Adelman sided with opponents of the law, who argued that low-income and minority voters aren’t as likely to have photo IDs or the documents needed to get them. According to Adelman’s ruling, the law violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
“(The law) has a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters because it is more likely to burden those voters with the costs of obtaining a photo ID that they would not otherwise obtain,” according to Adelman’s ruling. “This burden is significant not only because it is likely to deter Blacks and Latinos from voting even if they could obtain IDs without much difficulty, but also because Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to have difficulty obtaining IDs.”
ACLU spokesman Dale Ho said his group was “ecstatic” over the victory, and felt Adelman rendered a fair assessment of the evidence.
“We’re pleased. We feel vindicated by the judge’s decision,” he said.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Wednesday that he will appeal the decision.
“I am disappointed with the order and continue to believe Wisconsin’s law is constitutional,” Van Hollen said.
American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Dale Ho – whose group was involved in one of the two suits addressed by Adelman’s ruling – said the group is “ecstatic.”
Adelman’s decision invalidates Wisconsin’s law and could set a precedent for similar legal challenges in Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere. At least 14 states require voters to show photo ID, and legislation in dozens of other states includes proposals to either introduce new voter ID laws or strengthen existing ones. Just last week, an Arkansas judge struck down that state’s voter ID law; it is being appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Wisconsin’s Republican-led Legislature passed the photo ID requirement in 2011, scoring a long-sought GOP priority. Former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, had vetoed a similar requirement three times between 2002 and 2005.
Republican backers argued that requiring voters to show ID would cut down on voter fraud and boost public confidence in the integrity of the election process. Democrats countered that Republicans never produced evidence of any widespread fraud in Wisconsin, and said the mandate would keep poor people, immigrants and senior citizens from voting.
Adelman’s ruling focuses in on this argument, pointing to testimony in which Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf said the majority of referrals prosecutors get for potential voter fraud cases can be explained away by a harmless error.
According to Adelman’s ruling, the potential voter-impersonation fraud rate is “exceedingly tiny.”
Although voter-impersonation fraud may be difficult to detect, it is not invisible,” according to Adelman’s ruling. “If it is occurring in Wisconsin to any significant extent, then at trial the defendants should have been able to produce evidence that it is. The absence of such evidence confirms that there is virtually no voter-impersonation fraud in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin’s law was only in effect for a 2012 primary before a Dane County judge declared it unconstitutional.
The federal challenge combined two separate cases. One was brought by minority-rights groups, including the Wisconsin chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the other involved the ACLU.
The plaintiffs argued the law violates the federal Voter Rights Act, but their case isn’t the only legal challenge. In state court, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch filed separate lawsuits alleging the law violates Wisconsin’s Constitution. Those challenges are being considered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which heard arguments in late February.
During those oral arguments, Justice Pat Roggensack questioned whether the $20 that a resident who doesn’t have a copy of their birth certificate would have to pay to obtain one – to then get a government-issued photo ID in order to vote – would be analogous to a poll tax. She said she found that troubling.
It’s not clear when the state justices will rule.
For the voter ID law to be reinstated, it will have to pass both the federal and state challenges. However, Adelman’s decision doesn’t necessarily render the state cases moot because his decision likely will be appealed.
Gov. Scott Walker said last month that he would call lawmakers into special session to vote on new legislation if the courts ruled against the law.
Wisconsin Law Journal staff writer Eric Heisig and Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, and M.L. Johnson in Milwaukee also contributed to this report.