One of the country’s toughest voting restrictions takes effect for the April 5 primary.`
Johnny Randle, a 74-year-old African-American resident of Milwaukee, moved to Wisconsin from Mississippi in 2011, the same year the state legislature passed a law requiring a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. Randle, with the help of his daughter, petitioned the DMV to issue him a free ID for voting because he could not afford to pay for his Mississippi birth certificate.
After a five-month “adjudication process,” the DMV denied his request. His daughter ultimately tracked down his Mississippi birth certificate, but the name listed, Johnnie Marton Randall, did not match the name he’d used his entire life, Johnny Martin Randle. The DMV said that he would either need to correct his name through the Social Security Administration and get a new Social Security card reflecting the name on his birth certificate or go to court to “change” his name and “provide court documents reflecting that your name has legally been changed to read as ‘Johnny M Randle.’” But Randle worried that any change to his Social Security information might interrupt the monthly disability payments he survives on. (This account comes from a new lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s voting restrictions filed by Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, Hillary Clinton’s campaign counsel.)
Randle was forced to choose between his livelihood and his right to vote. As of the April 5 presidential primary, he is still not able to vote in Wisconsin. After voting without incident in the formerly Jim Crow South, he was disenfranchised when he moved to the North. Stories like Randle’s are why the Wisconsin Supreme Court dubbed the voter ID law a “de facto poll tax” and it was blocked in state and federal court until a panel of Republican-appointed judges reinstated the measure in 2014.
Randle is one of 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin, 9 percent of the electorate, who do not have a government-issued photo ID and could be disenfranchised by the state’s new voter-ID law, which is in effect for the first time in 2016. Wisconsin, one of the country’s most important battleground states, is one of 16 states with new voting restrictions in place since 2012. The five-hour lines in Arizona were the most recent example of America’s election problems. Wisconsin could be next.
Randle’s account is hardly unique in Wisconsin. The lead plaintiff who challenged the voter-ID law, 89-year-old Ruthelle Frank, has been voting since 1948 and has served on the Village Board in her hometown of Brokaw since 1996, but cannot get a photo ID for voting because her maiden name is misspelled on her birth certificate, which would cost $200 to correct. “No one should have to pay a fee to be able to vote,” Frank said.
Others blocked from the polls include a man born in a concentration camp in Germany who lost his birth certificate in a fire; a woman who lost use of her hands but could not use her daughter as power of attorney at the DMV; and a 90-year-old veteran of Iwo Jima who could not vote with his veterans ID.
Noted voting-rights expert Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, says the Wisconsin voter-ID law “represents the first time since the era of the literacy test that state officials have told eligible voters that they cannot exercise their fundamental right to vote—not in the next election, probably not ever.”
There is a clear racial disparity in terms of who is most impacted by the law. In 2012, African-American voters in Wisconsin were 1.7 times as likely as white voters to lack a driver’s license or state photo ID, and Latino voters were 2.6 times as likely as white voters to lack such ID. More than 60 percent of people who’ve requested a photo ID for voting from the DMV have been black or Hispanic, according to legal filings.
The law also targets students. Student IDs from most public and private universities and colleges are not accepted because they don’t contain signatures or a two-year expiration date (compared to a ten-year expiration for driver’s licenses). “The standard student ID at only three of the University of Wisconsin’s 13 four-year schools and at seven of the state’s 23 private colleges can be used as a voter photo ID,” according to Common Cause Wisconsin.
Every American deserves an equal vote. But in some states, access to voting is becoming less and less equal.
The Koch brothers-backed group that helped launch the push for voter ID laws and “stand your ground” statutes has a new project: defending the anonymous “dark money” in politics.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, composed of conservative state lawmakers and corporations, devoted part of its annual conference last week to turning around negative perceptions about anonymous contributions. In an audio tape obtained by POLITICO, panelists at the San Diego event lament a movement gaining traction in state and local governments to require more disclosure of donations to politically active nonprofits, which are expected to spend hundreds of millions in the 2016 election.
According to the audio, speakers stressed that groups pushing for disclosure were strategic in labeling anonymous spending “dark money,” “conjuring images of shady operatives in smoke-filled rooms” in the minds of voters to boost their cause.
“Seems to me that by using the term ‘dark money’ in this discussion we are buying into their arguments,” said one state senator at the session. “If the media were to call it something better such as ‘anonymous free speech money’ or something else. Somebody needs to come up with a better label than ‘dark money.’”
Other speakers also acknowledged that disclosure advocates have waged a more successful public relations campaign in influencing voters’ opinion on the issue, and that it’s time for their side to step it up as more statehouses propose disclosure laws.
Despite condemnation from civil rights groups, federal officials, and the president of the United States, most Americans—including blacks—support voter identification laws. But like most public opinion, this view is highly contingent and contextual. Ask a different question—or give a different scenario—and you’ll get a different result.
A new survey—from University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication—makes that incredibly clear. In the study, which used a representative sample of 1,436 adults, respondents were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group received a statement about voter ID laws—“Voter ID laws require individuals to show a form of government issued identification when they attempt to vote”—followed by a question, “What is your opinion? Do you strongly favor voter ID laws, favor voter ID laws, oppose voter ID laws, or strongly oppose voter ID laws?” The second group received the statement and the question, as well as an image of a white person at a voting machine. And the third group received the same statement and the same question, but an image of a black person at a voting machine.
In every group, a majority supported voter identification. But while respondents in the “no image” and “white image” groups gave 67 percent support for the measures, respondents in the “black image” group gave 73 percent support.
Now, this isn’t a substantial change—from, for instance, a small plurality to a solid majority—but it is a significant one. As researcher David C. Wilson notes, “Our findings suggest that public opinion about voter ID laws can be racialized by simply showing images of African-American people. The resulting increase in support for the laws happens independently of—even after controlling for—political ideology and negative attitudes about African-Americans.” For some Americans, in other words, just seeing blacks voting increases their support for voter identification laws.
What’s interesting about this study—besides its immediate conclusions—is how it fits into an emerging picture of what motivates voter ID laws. For as much as proponents say they want to stop voter fraud and protect ballot “integrity,” more and more research suggests race as a critical factor in where these laws emerge, and who supports them.
A panel of Republican judges quickly reinstated Wisconsin’s voter identification law on Friday night, just hours after hearing arguments in the case.
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago stayed a lower court judge’s order blocking implementation of the law, which requires voters show a government-issued ID with a photo. It hasn’t been implemented since the 2012 primaries because of legal challenges.
“Having read the briefs and heard oral argument, this court now stays the injunction issued by the district court. The State of Wisconsin may, if it wishes (and if it is appropriate under rules of state law), enforce the photo ID requirement in this November’s elections,” the appeals court wrote in a order issued Friday afternoon. “The district court held the state law invalid, and enjoined its implementation, even though it is materially identical to Indiana’s photo ID statute, which the Supreme Court held valid in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board” in 2008.
Wisconsin officials now plan to implement the law for the midterms.
“We are taking every step to fully implement the voter photo ID law for the November general election,” said Kevin Kennedy, the state’s election director, according to the Associated Press. “We are now focused on communicating with local election officials and voters, and will have more information about the details next week.”
And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) praised the law as beneficial for voters.
“Voter ID is a common sense reform that protects the integrity of our voting process,” he said in a statement. “Today’s ruling makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
Democrats and civil rights activists have been fighting this law, and dozens like it in a number of other states, as discriminatory towards the poor and minorities, noting it’s often harder for those subsets of the population to meet the requirements of voter ID laws.
The Obama Administration was also engaged in the case, having filed an amicus brief in July urging the appeals court to uphold the lower’ court’s ruling.
The appeals court said, however, that a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that came down in July sufficiently narrowed the law to make it less harmful to minorities.
Only seven months after the Supreme Court shattered the Voting Rights Act, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has come up with a bill that would go a long way toward putting it back together. If they can persuade Republicans in Congress to set aside partisanship and allow it to pass, they would begin to restore justice to a deeply damaged electoral process. It would be an ideal way to observe the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this week.
The bill is far from perfect. In particular, it does not give enough weight to the discriminatory effect of voter ID laws. But it would make it more difficult for states and localities to take other actions that reduce minority voting rights. Jurisdictions would once again be put under Justice Department supervision if they committed multiple violations of the Constitution.
All states and cities would be required to make public any last-minute changes to election practices, an improvement over current law, which requires such public notice in just a few states. And the bill would make it easier to stop harmful voting changes in court before they happen.
The Supreme Court’s decision last June struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which set the formula that determined which states and localities, based on their histories of discrimination, were required to get preapproval for voting changes from the Justice Department. The court’s majority ruled that the formula was obsolete, imposing a burden on states without proof that they still discriminate. The court invited Congress to come up with a new formula.
That’s what the new bill does. Any state that has committed five or more election violations in a 15-year period, as determined by a court, would fall under federal supervision of voting changes. Cities and counties would be supervised if they committed three violations in 15 years, or if they committed a single violation and had persistently low minority turnout during that period. That supervision would allow the Justice Department to block newly imposed voter ID requirements.
Under the proposed formula, Justice Department oversight would currently apply to only four states: Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. It would not apply to states like North Carolina, which in addition to imposing harsh voter ID requirements has also made voting more difficult in other ways, like restricting early voting or same-day registration. Those practices have not been ruled as constitutional violations by a court, in part because getting such a ruling is a difficult legal process.
The bill would permit courts to require federal supervision of a jurisdiction if a voting change has a discriminatory effect on a minority group, whether or not the effect is intentional. That would be an enormously important improvement over current law. Plaintiffs now are required to show that a state or city intended to discriminate, a difficult burden even when the effect is clear, particularly when politicians create phony justifications for their actions.
But voter ID laws are exempted from this provision, and could not be cited in a lawsuit as a reason for a court to “bail in” a state or locality to federal supervision. This is an alarming flaw, particularly in light of the important decision last Friday by a Pennsylvania judge, who ruled that the state’s voter ID law violated Pennsylvania’s fundamental right to vote and had no legitimate purpose in fighting fraud.
The bill is sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, among others, and several members from both parties have pledged to support it. Mr. Sensenbrenner said he was trying to persuade the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, to allow a vote on the bill, and said that he had to “jump through hoops” to garner Republican support.
The deletion of voter ID laws from the list of discriminatory violations is a steep price to pay for that support. This bill is a good step forward, but those who care about extending democracy to every corner of the country should not give up hope of making it even better.