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Federal Judge Strikes A Critical Blow Against Wisconsin’s Voter Suppression Law

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL, FILE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL, FILE

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Wisconsin handed down a decision that will drastically weaken that state’s voter ID law, an increasingly common method of voter suppression that is often favored by conservatives because it effectively shifts the electorate rightward. Although the decision leaves the law in place, it permits voters who are unable to obtain an ID to sign an affidavit at the polls testifying to that inability and to receive a ballot.

Notably, Judge Lynn Adelman’s decision provides that “any voter who completes and submits an affidavit shall receive a regular ballot, even if that voter does not show acceptable photo identification” and that “no person may challenge the sufficiency of the reason given by the voter for failing to obtain ID.” Thus, the state will not be able to prevent voters from casting a ballot by claiming that an individual voter is able to obtain an ID through reasonable efforts.

Adelman’s opinion spends a considerable amount of time explaining some of the obstacles that prevented individual voters from obtaining the photo ID the law requires them to have in order to vote. One woman, for example, did not have a copy of her birth certificate, and was unable to obtain proof of her birth from the hospital where she was born without paying a fee (the Constitution does not permit voters to be forced to pay money in order to vote). Another voter was adopted, and thus was frustrated by the fact that her birth certificate used the surname of her biological parents, even though she uses the name of her adoptive parents. Other voters were denied ID because of errors by DMV employees.

Previous court decisions indicate that a state’s interest in “preventing voter-impersonation fraud and promoting voter confidence” are sufficient reasons to justify a voter ID law — even though voter fraud at the polls is virtually nonexistent. Yet, as Adelman writes, “no court has found that these interests are sufficient to prevent a person who cannot obtain ID with reasonable effort, or who cannot obtain ID at all, from voting.”

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To prevent voters who cannot reasonably obtain ID from being disenfranchised, Adelman issued a temporary order requiring the state to accept affidavits from voters who say they could not obtain an ID. It’s a serious blow to the state’s voter suppression law, although one that still must clear a very difficult hurdle if it is to remain in place. Adelman previously struck down the voter ID law, but this law was reinstated by an especially conservative panel of a federal appeals court.