The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will not hear Frank v. Walker, a challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Frank was listed, without fanfare, on a long list of cases the justices announced that they would not hear. Though the Court’s decision not to hear a case does not have any doctrinal implications — it can neither be cited as precedent nor does it bind future judges — its decision not to hear this particular case will have tremendous practical implications for voting rights in Wisconsin.
The justices previously halted the law in a temporary order shortly before the 2014 elections. The law will now almost certainly take full effect.
Voter ID laws, which require voters to show a photo ID before they can cast a ballot at the polls, are an increasingly common form of election law that can prevent thousands of voters from casting a ballot. Though their supporters often claim that they are necessary to combat voter fraud at the polls, such fraud barely exists. A study of the approximately 3 million votes cast by Wisconsin residents in 2004, for example, found just 7 cases of fraud — and none of those cases would have been prevented by a voter ID law.
What voter ID laws do accomplish, however, is they disproportionately target low-income voters, people of color and young voters, all of whom are more likely to support Democrats than Republicans at the polls. According to a federal district court’s decision striking down Wisconsin’s voter ID law, 9 percent of registered voters lack the ID necessary to vote under the state’s law. In 2012, former New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver offered a more conservative estimate of the impact of strict voter ID laws, but he nonetheless predicted that such a law could “reduce President Obama’s margin against Mitt Romney by a net of 1.2 percentage points.”
Among other things, Frank challenged the Wisconsin law under what remains of the Voting Rights Act after a previous Supreme Court decision gutted much of that act. The plaintiffs in Frank argued that “voter ID laws disproportionately burden the voting rights of African-American and Latino voters, who are more likely than White voters to lack qualifying photo ID.” Thus, the law should be struck down under the Voting Rights Act’s ban on practices that result “in a denial of abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
Nevertheless, asking this particular Supreme Court to strike down a voter ID law was always a challenging task for the plaintiffs. This Court did not simply strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act; it previously allowed Indiana’s voter ID law to take effect — albeit in a constitutional challenge that presented somewhat different legal arguments. Notably, however, a plurality of the Court in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board admitted that the record in the case contained “no evidence” of in-person voter fraud occurring “in Indiana at any time in its history.” Indeed, the plurality’s opinion only cited a single example of such fraud occurring in the United States within the preceding 140 years!
If such weak evidence could justify a voter suppression law in Crawford, then it was always unlikely that this Court would be moved by the evidence presented by the plaintiffs in Frank.