-By Lisa Kaiser
February 8, 2012- In two weeks, Wisconsin voters will be required to present a state-approved photo ID to cast a ballot in the Feb. 21 nonpartisan primary.
While the new voter ID requirement—passed last year by the Republican-led state Legislature—sounds straightforward, the nuts and bolts of implementing it are not.
And with three pending lawsuits challenging the law's constitutionality, it isn't certain that the voter ID law will survive court challenges.
Will Voter ID Combat Fraud?
Up until last year, Wisconsin had one of the most open voting systems in the country. Prospective voters had to present proof of residency when registering to vote, but voters only had to state their name and address when requesting a ballot. That policy, along with Election Day voter registration, helped to boost Wisconsin's voter participation.
That system changed last year, however, when Republicans were able to make good on their long-standing desire to enact a voter ID law. They argued that Wisconsin had “widespread voter fraud” that they said diluted legitimate voters' ballots. They argued that on-paper felons, double-voters, out-of-state residents and voters impersonating others were illegally participating in elections.
The problem for Republicans, however, is that there is little evidence of voter fraud in Wisconsin.
In 2005, then-Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann and then-Republican U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic (now Gov. Scott Walker's attorney) led an investigation into improper voting in the 2004 election, but that turned up scant evidence of fraud. Instead, they found some clerical errors and messy record-keeping.
In 2008, Republican state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen set up a statewide task force on voter fraud. But out of the 3 million votes cast in the November 2008 election, Van Hollen prosecuted a mere 14 improper voters, or about 0.0000046% of the electorate.
Creating Barriers to Voting
So will the new voter ID law crack down on this tiny amount of alleged fraud?
Not likely, since it won't prevent on-paper felons from voting illegally, nor will it stop double-voting or voter impersonation.
“Nothing in the new law would stop this,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Legal Director Laurence Dupuis.
–What's more likely is that the voter ID law will disenfranchise between 5% and 10% of the state's voters, Dupuis said, since these potential voters lack an acceptable photo ID or would have to overcome huge barriers to obtain the underlying documents needed to receive an ID.
These potentially disenfranchised voters are primarily low-income residents, seniors, students, ethnic and racial minority voters and those with disabilities. Not surprisingly, these voters tend to support Democrats, who opposed the legislation.
–These barriers are at the heart of three legal challenges that could strike down the new law either in its entirety or in part:
–The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court alleging that the law is unconstitutional because lawmakers do not have the right to enact voting restrictions other than rules for residency, voter registration, absentee voting or excluding felons or persons who are found to be incompetent. The League argues that the voter ID law would impede the voting rights of legal voters who do not have certain types of identification, a restriction that the state constitution does not allow.
–The ACLU's Dupuis said the lawsuit could strike down the law in its entirety or the parts concerning the groups of voters who would most likely be deterred from voting.