News Column

Judge Strikes Down Wisconsin Voter ID Law

April 30, 2014

Ed Treleven, The Wisconsin State Journal

Hispanic voters (file image)
Hispanic voters (file image)

April 30--A federal judge in Milwaukee on Tuesday threw out Wisconsin's voter ID law, saying it unconstitutionally puts too great a burden on people who do not have the required identification to vote.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman also found the law passed in 2011 violates the federal Voting Rights Act, discriminating against black and Latino voters, who are more likely not to have photo IDs or the documents required to get them.

Republican state legislators and Gov. Scott Walker had argued that the law was necessary to stop voter fraud, but Adelman, ruling in two legal challenges that he considered together, found that he had seen almost no evidence of it.

"The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin," he wrote. "The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past."

"While there is no way to know how many of the 300,000 people who lack the acceptable photo ID will be deterred from voting because of the law," Adelman wrote, "it is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes."

Walker and Republicans who run the state Legislature vowed to call lawmakers back to the Capitol to pass a new version of the law if it were struck down. But Tuesday, they backed away from that pledge, saying they were weighing their options.

State to appeal

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the state will appeal the ruling.

"I am disappointed with the order and continue to believe Wisconsin's law is constitutional," Van Hollen said. "We will appeal."

Adelman's decision involved a lawsuit brought on behalf of 25 people represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, and another lawsuit brought by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Wisconsin and other groups.

Adelman wrote that the ID law disproportionately impacts black and Latino voters, who are more likely to be poor, less likely than whites to have qualifying IDs and less likely to drive or take part in other activities, such as travel, for which they would need an ID.

The 2011 law was enforced only once, during the spring 2012 elections, before it was found unconstitutional by two Dane County judges hearing separate lawsuits over the law. One of those decisions was overturned on appeal. Both lawsuits now await a decision by the state Supreme Court.

Adelman's decision Tuesday will keep the law from taking effect at least until an inevitable appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court.

James Eichner of the Advancement Project, which tried the case on behalf of LULAC and other plaintiffs, said the decision strikes down a law that is "virtually indistinguishable from Jim Crow laws of earlier eras, which required poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests and other contrived, racist measures designed to prevent African Americans from voting."

GOP leaders mull options

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Tuesday it was too early to know if a special session would be called before the fall election.

He noted the Assembly passed a new voter ID bill this past session to cure potential constitutional problems identified by the lower court challenges.

While Adelman left open the possibility of lifting the injunction if the Legislature amended the law, he said that it was difficult to see how lawmakers could remove the "disproportionate racial impact and discriminatory result" of requiring a photo ID.

Vos noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled similar laws are constitutional. He charged that Adelman's decision "stakes out new ground based on (Adelman's) own ideology and not based on the facts."

Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, chairwoman of the Senate elections committee, echoed a similar theme.

She said the decision by Adelman -- a former Democratic state senator appointed by President Bill Clinton -- was politically motivated.

"Voter ID ensures the age-old principle of one vote for one person," Lazich said. "My goal of transparent, open elections free from suspicion of fraud will not be deterred by judicial activism."

Democrats praise decision

The Legislature's Democratic leaders said Adelman's decision pushes back against what they believe are efforts by Republicans to limit voting by the poor and minorities. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, accused Republicans of having an "anti-democracy agenda."

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, noted that GOP lawmakers have voted to limit voting hours and allow election observers to stand an "intimidating" three feet away from voters.

"The GOP effort to restrict the freedom to vote has been persistent," Larson said in a statement.

Reaction from candidates for attorney general broke along party lines, with Democratic hopefuls Rep. Jon Richards and Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ praising the decision while Republican candidate Brad Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney, said he would appeal it if elected.

"We should work to protect the citizen's right to vote, and increase voter turnout, not make it harder for people to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot," Richards said in a statement.

Said Happ, "As district attorney, I have prosecuted voter fraud, and those cases did not involve voter impersonation. This was a solution without a problem."

Schimel issued a statement saying the voter ID law helps ensure the integrity of elections.

"Without some form of voter ID there is no way ... to ensure each person's vote counts once and only once," he said.

Voter impersonation rare

But witnesses testifying in the federal trial said there is little evidence of voters trying to impersonate someone else, leading Adelman to conclude that "no rational person familiar with relevant facts could be concerned about them."

Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in voter fraud, testified that during election years 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012, she could identify only one case of voter impersonation fraud, and it involved a man who applied for and cast his recently dead wife's absentee ballot.

The state contended that it has an interest in taking steps to prevent future fraud, but Adelman wrote that the Supreme Court has said states cannot make voting harder to address dangers that are only "theoretically imaginable."

He added that one would have to be "insane" to commit voter impersonation fraud, risking a $10,000 fine and three years in prison to give a candidate one single additional vote.

Many voters don't have ID

About 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters, or 9 percent, don't have qualifying ID. In 2010, Adelman noted, the governor's race was decided by 124,638 votes, and the race for U.S. Senate was decided by 105,041 votes.

During the trial in November, Adelman heard testimony from people who could not get IDs because they did not have a birth certificate, could not afford one, or have an erroneous birth certificate. One man testified that he uses his veteran's ID card for banking but cannot use it to vote. And many are poor, earning less than $20,000 a year.

Obtaining a state ID card through the state Division of Motor Vehicles requires a birth certificate, which requires certain types of identification, which can be costly and time-consuming to obtain, witnesses said. Getting transportation and time off work to go to DMV offices also are barriers, the judge found.

"Given the obstacles identified above," Adelman wrote, "it is likely that a substantial number of the 300,000-plus voters who lack a qualifying ID will be deterred from voting."

-- State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.

Contact Ed Treleven at or 608-252-6134. Dee J. Hall can be reached at or 608-252-6132.


(c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Original headline: Federal judge strikes down Wisconsin voter ID law

For more stories covering politics, please see HispanicBusiness' Politics Channel

Source: (c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters