Federal judge to consider Wis. voter ID lawsuit
- Article by: DINESH RAMDE
- Associated Press
- November 3, 2013 - 7:45 PM
MILWAUKEE — A closely watched federal trial is set to begin Monday over a Wisconsin law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls. The outcome could set a precedent for legal challenges in dozens of states that have imposed or stiffened voter ID requirements in recent years.
The Wisconsin law passed in 2011 and was in effect for the February 2012 primary, but it was later blocked when a judge handling a separate state lawsuit declared the measure unconstitutional. Advocates have pursued a federal trial while that decision and others are appealed.
Supporters maintain the Republican-backed law is needed to combat voter fraud, but opponents contend it's nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Voter ID remains a contentious issue in many states. This year alone, 30 states considered legislation to introduce, strengthen or modify voter ID laws.
The trial starting Monday involves two federal lawsuits filed by civil rights groups, one of them brought on behalf of Bettye Jones, a 77-year-old black Brookfield woman who had difficulty voting because she had neither a state-issued driver's license nor a birth certificate needed to acquire one. Jones' daughter, Debra Crawford, spent months fighting with state officials to get her mother an acceptable ID.
"This was such a burden, in terms of time, emotional energy and finances," Crawford said. "It took sheer determination to make this happen."
Jones, who died after the lawsuit was filed, was born at home in 1935 in Jackson, Tenn. Her birth was never registered, which wasn't uncommon with home births in that time and place. Jones was able to get a driver's license as an adult in Ohio, but when she moved to Wisconsin in 2011, the state told her she needed a birth certificate to get a state ID here.
Crawford said that was impossible and it was an "arduous task" to find acceptable alternatives. Jones had gone to a segregated elementary school that has since closed, so school records also didn't exist. Eventually, state officials agreed to accept birth certificates from Crawford and Jones' siblings, along with Jones' high school records from Ohio that dated back to 1956.
Supporters of the voter ID law say Jones' case is unusual and most people have the documents — either a birth certificate or passport — needed to get a driver's license. Opponents, however, say older black voters born at home in the South and people born in other countries often lack the needed paperwork.
"We think voter ID laws like the one in Wisconsin have a disproportionate impact on people of color. It prevents them from voting or it imposes burdens not shared by white affluent voters," said Jim Eichner, an attorney for the Advancement Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that is supporting the federal lawsuit.
The suit lists members of the Government Accountability Board as defendants because the board enforces the voter ID law. The board referred questions to the state Department of Justice, which said the law protects lawful voters from the effects of those casting unlawful ballots.
"It is proper and legal for the State to require a person appearing at the polls to prove that he or she is, in fact, the eligible, registered elector whose vote is to be cast," Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said through a spokeswoman.
A pair of Republican state Assembly members circulated a bill Thursday designed to make it easier for voters to acquire an acceptable photo ID. It would allow those without birth certificates or passports to take an oath that they can't obtain the documents needed for proof of ID.
Once that oath is made, the person could vote and have their ballot counted; the vote would be marked and could be challenged if there was a recount.
The bill isn't likely to go far, however. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he didn't plan to take it up in the Senate because he preferred to see what happens in court.
© 2013 Star Tribune