In Tuesday’s primary election, Wisconsin saw its highest voter turnout in decades, leading Gov. Scott Walker (R) to boast that it’s “easy to vote” in his state. But many voters were burdened or disenfranchised by the state’s newly-implemented and poorly publicized voter ID law, which disproportionately impacts the state’s low-income voters of color.
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union argued before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that people who face significant hardships should be able to vote without an ID. As in New Hampshire, Idaho, Texas, and several other states, such voters would be able to sign a legally-binding affadavit to prove their identity.
This accommodation could help voters like Dennis Hatten, a formerly homeless Marine Corps veteran who spent six months fighting with the DMV to obtain a voter ID — all because of a mistake a midwife made on his birth certificate — and Nefertiti Helem, a low-income woman with a disability who couldn’t obtain an ID despite having a Social Security card, an Illinois state ID, and proof of her Wisconsin residence.
Sean Young, the lead attorney on the case, previously argued that Wisconsin’s voter ID law should be struck down entirely. Some federal courts agreed, comparing the law to a poll tax, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the law to stand. Now, the ACLU is arguing that individual categories of people should be allowed to challenge the law and demand accommodations that enable them to vote.
We haven’t had the right to vote depend on the whims of an individual bureaucrat since the days of the Jim Crow literacy test.
“Wisconsin’s law remains the harshest in the country and continues to be a threat to our democracy,” Young told ThinkProgress. “Voters, especially from impoverished backgrounds, must be able to exercise the franchise.”
Young said many low-income, homeless, or recently-relocated citizens who don’t have access to their birth certificates have to go through an “absurd exercise” in order to vote.
“Going to the DMV multiple times, tracking down ancient school records and baptismal certificates, then going back to the DMV hat in hand and hoping the employee deems them acceptable. The DMV workers have total discretion to reject them,” he said. “We haven’t had the right to vote depend on the whims of an individual bureaucrat since the days of the Jim Crow literacy test.”
Hatten, with the help of a volunteer lawyer from the group VoteRiders, spent months going through this process, finally discovering that the midwife who delivered him in Arkansas in 1962 had written a French Creole version of his name on his birth certificate that didn’t match his other documents. He compared the experience of obtaining an ID to the voter suppression his family endured in the Jim Crow South.
“I thought, is this sort of a poll tax type of thing?” he told ThinkProgress. “Are they trying to stop us from voting? It seemed to me like some of the veiled racist systems from the past are still in place.”
In 2012, when the ID law was first challenged as unconstitutional in federal court, experts hired by the state estimated that up to 300,000 would be disenfranchised because they lacked the proper identification. Wisconsin Republicans argued the measure was stilll necessary because the state is “riddled” with voter fraud. Yet independent studies have found such fraud to be virtually non-existent in the state. After hearing the arguments for and against the law, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman wrote that “no rational person could be worried about” voter fraud, and held that the law presented an unconstitutional “denial or abridgment of the right to vote.” Following Tuesday’s election, many Wisconsin voters sounded off on their struggles with the new requirements.
Jackie Russo, a 75-year-old voter from Brookfield, Wisconsin, told ThinkProgress she was turned away from the polls when she tried to vote early because she had misplaced her drivers license. Though she had her old, expired drivers’ license as well as a Social Security card, she was not permitted to cast a vote. She had to go to the DMV and pay $14 to replace her license in order to vote on Tuesday.
“I was livid and I am ashamed to say I swore,” she told ThinkProgress. “Does this make sense? Not that I can see. I have been a registered voter for 58 years. I still looked like the picture [on my expired license] and the address on it matched the voting sheet that they check you off on.”
Russo said that based on her experience, she is concerned the law will deter other elderly and low-income voters. “If I, who votes in every election, has a little apprehension about having to go again, just think what a less motivated person would do,” she said. “How many people do you think this will discourage? When you are elderly it is just too much work to fight to vote. I really felt discriminated against.”
Many students struggled on Tuesday as well, discovering at that the last minute that most student IDs are not accepted at the polls. Students also had to remember to bring a proof of enrollment in order to vote. Confusion around these requirements combined with high turnout led to some students waiting more than two hours to cast a ballot.
Non-partisan observers who monitored the college campus polling sites told ThinkProgress the wait times were driving some first-time voters away.
“To me, this is just the epitome of voter suppression and disenfranchisement,” said Martha Pincus with the League of Women Voters. “People have been walking away. I heard them say, ‘I skipped one class and I can’t skip another one.’ Then I heard other kids say, ‘I can’t believe this is what voting is about.’ But most of them were determined to vote and they stayed in line.”
The ACLU is hopeful that it can force the state to amend its voter ID law to better accommodate some of these voters, pointing to their previous lawsuit that pushed the state to add veterans’ ID cards to the list of allowed documents. “But it’s sad it took three years of litigation to force the legislature to allow people who risked their lives for this country to vote,” noted Young.
They’ll face a dizzying array of requirements for the biggest election of their lifetimes.
Election law experts say the voter ID law is just one of a “broader quilt” of laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans that make it more difficult for many residents to vote. In recent years, the state has also cut the number of early voting days, eliminating the possibility of voting on the weekend before the election.
“I used to be able to go downtown on a Saturday afternoon when I was doing my shopping and vote, but I can’t do that anymore,” said Professor Don Moynihan, who teaches public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And for black congregations who used to organize ‘Souls to Polls’ trips on Sundays for their members, that option off the table now.”
Moynihan said he’s worried things will be much worse in November, when there will be higher turnout and when the state’s non-partisan elections agency will be dismantled this summer by another law recently signed by Gov. Walker.
“Why they did not delay [the change] until after the election is beyond me to understand,” he said. “We will have an entirely new group of officials arrive in the middle of the summer to administer the election, and a whole new group of people going to the polls, unaware of the laws.”
Moynihan expressed significant concern for the thousands of new students who will enroll in Wisconsin colleges this fall, just weeks before November’s general election. “We’ll have a new cohort of students arriving at the end of August, many coming from out of state, and they’ll face a dizzying array of requirements for the biggest election of their lifetimes,” he said. “They’re putting an additional layer of burdens on that group without justification.”
The 7th Circuit Court ruled unanimously on Tuesday evening for the ACLU, sending the case back to U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee for further consideration. The court agreed with the plaintiffs that it is “impossible” for some people — especially the poor — to acquire the kind of ID they need to vote, and said that allowing them to sign an affadavit instead would be a good “safety net.” The state of Wisconsin is expected to appeal the ruling.