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The Voter ID Decision Is Bigger Than You Think

Federal judge refutes right-wing allegations of ‘widespread voter fraud’

May. 7, 2014
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Last week, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman struck down Wisconsin’s Republican-backed voter ID law, a landmark judicial decision in the hard-fought battle over voting rights and electoral fraud.

“This is not a political process that is ‘equally open to participation’ by blacks and Latinos,” Adelman wrote. “It is one in which a disproportionate share of black and Latino populations must shoulder an additional burden in order to exercise the right to vote.”

Adelman’s decision is the first one that uses Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to say that voter ID laws can’t be upheld when they are racially discriminative.

“It’s important because it may have implications on other Section 2 challenges in the pipeline,” said Karyn Rotker, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin attorney who worked on this case.


GOP’s Voter Disenfranchisement Strategy

Voter ID had been at the top of the GOP’s to-do list around the country for years, although Democrats had been able to prevent one from being implemented in Wisconsin.

But when Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans took office in 2011, they passed voter ID requirements that were among the most restrictive in the country, if not the most restrictive.

In response, national and local community groups—led by the ACLU, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and faith and labor organizations—sued in federal court, while separate cases were heard by the state Supreme Court but haven’t been decided.

Adelman found the plaintiffs’ arguments to be persuasive, while those defending Act 23, led by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, came up short—very short. Adelman’s 90-page decision takes aim at the arguments in favor of voter ID—the typical right-wing smears generated for years by elected officials and radio talkers—and refutes every one of them.

“It’s not like the judge reached out of the air to come to his decision,” said Rotker. “He made findings based on what was proven at trial.”

Adelman takes pains to state that Act 23’s ID requirements would only combat voter-impersonation fraud, which is incredibly rare in Wisconsin, and would have a disproportionately burdensome impact on the state’s poor and minority citizens who are legally qualified to vote. Voter ID, of course, wouldn’t have any real impact on middle- and upper-class citizens who already have a driver’s license or state ID.

AG Van Hollen released a statement that he would appeal Adelman’s decision and Republicans are mulling whether they would try to pass a new voter ID law before the November election, when Walker is on the ballot.


Myths and Facts About Voter ID

Here’s a look at some of the most common right-wing-created voter ID myths that Adelman refutes in his landmark decision:

Myth: There’s widespread voter fraud in Wisconsin.

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

Myth: Voter fraud happens all the time, but the laws are so loose and law enforcement doesn’t care about it so these cases don’t get prosecuted.

Fact: “The defendants do not suggest that there is any underenforcement of such laws in Wisconsin,” Adelman wrote. “And the evidence at trial indicates that such laws are vigorously enforced.”

Task forces made up of multiple levels of law enforcement were formed for the elections of 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012, and no cases of voter impersonation were discovered. Former Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Sandvick had testified that voter fraud did occur, but that some cases were difficult to detect, such as someone using a fake address to vote. “He did not mention voter impersonation,” Adelman wrote.

Myth: The state should make sure that no voter fraud happens in the future.

Fact: Addressing a potential problem in the future isn’t a good enough reason to restrict voting rights, Adelman wrote. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has found that states “cannot burden the right to vote in order to address dangers that are remote and only ‘theoretically imaginable.’”

Myth: It’s easy to commit voter fraud. Just show up on Election Day and cast a ballot under someone else’s name.

Fact: There’s a lot more to it than that. “To commit voter-impersonation fraud, a person would need to know the name of another person who is registered at a particular polling place, know the address of that person, know that the person had not yet voted, and also know that no one at the polls will realize that the impersonator is not the individual being impersonated. The defendants offered no evidence at trial to support the notion that it is easy to obtain this knowledge,” Adelman concluded.

Myth: We need voter ID laws to enhance confidence in our electoral system.

Fact: A study published in the Harvard Law Review found no relationship between voter ID laws and a person’s level of trust or confidence in the electoral process. What’s more, Adelman said that testimony indicated that photo ID requirements undermine our trust in the electoral process as much as they promote it. Some of that mistrust is bred and amplified by politicians who promote the idea of widespread voter fraud, even though they don’t have evidence of it. Another negative consequence of photo ID requirements, Adelman found, is the perception that voter IDs themselves disenfranchise voters, “thus making results of elections less reflective of the will of the people.”

Myth: What’s the big deal? I’ve got a driver’s license. Doesn’t everyone have one?

Fact: Not everyone has a driver’s license. According to testimony from statistician Leland Beatty, approximately 300,000 registered voters—or 9%—in Wisconsin lack an acceptable ID for voting under Act 23. These are people who are qualified to vote and have already registered, but they wouldn’t be able to vote in the next election unless they got a driver’s license, state ID or other acceptable photo ID.

Moreover, there are qualified voters who are not registered who lack an ID as well, about 63,085 in Milwaukee County alone, testified University of Washington Professor Matthew Barreto, an expert witness for the plaintiffs.

There are enough qualified but non-ID’ed voters to swing an election. Adelman noted that the 2010 gubernatorial race was decided by 124,638 votes and the race for U.S. Senate in 2010 was decided by 105,041 votes.

Myth: Voter ID doesn’t single out black and Latino voters. It affects everyone and creates an even playing field.

Fact: Professor Baretto found that 7.3% of eligible white voters in Milwaukee County lacked an appropriate ID, but 13.2% of eligible African American voters and 14.9% of eligible Latino voters lack one. Similarly, a 2005 UW-Milwaukee study found that 73% of white Milwaukee County residents have a valid driver’s license, while only 47% of African American and 43% of Hispanic adults do so. “In light of the evidence presented at trial and the defendants’ admission, the conclusion that Blacks and Latinos disproportionately lack IDs is inescapable.”

Myth: It’s easy to get a state ID or driver’s license.

Fact: Adelman noted that Act 23 wasn’t targeted to a typical middle- or upper-class voter who has an acceptable ID. The law would have its greatest impact on low-income residents, those with little education, older voters, African Americans and Hispanic voters, who will be disproportionately burdened by the new requirement.

“For many voters who lack an ID, even minor burdens associated with obtaining one will be enough to deter them from voting,” Adelman wrote.

Many Wisconsin citizens testified during trial that they had tried to obtain an acceptable form of ID but were stymied. Although the cost of a state ID for voting purposes could be waived, some said they could not afford to pay for the documents needed to obtain that ID, such as a birth certificate, which costs $20 in Wisconsin. Others testified that they were born out of state and getting their birth certificate was difficult or impossible. Some were born at home by a midwife who did not record births via official documents. Some don’t have the documents needed to obtain their birth certificate, such as a photo ID, passport or major credit card. Others have discrepancies in the spelling of their name, especially those who were born to immigrant parents.

Myth: Voter fraud dilutes the power of legitimate votes.

Fact: The number of fraudulently cast ballots is very small, while up to 300,000 qualified voters could potentially be disenfranchised by the law. “It is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes,” Adelman wrote.


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