The first legal challenge to an elections law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), since the U.S. Supreme Court shot down preclearance protections under Section 5 of the VRA in June, is underway with little to no fanfare.
On Nov. 4, 2013, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman will hear a challenge to Wisconsin’s voter identification law brought by Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group, and pro bono counsel Arnold & Porter.
In 2011, the state’s Republican-led legislature passed a law that would require voters to present a government-issued ID in order to cast a ballot in local, state and federal elections. The new measure would have counted Wisconsin among nearly three dozen states with voter ID laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republican proponents say such laws protect against voter fraud. But Democrats and other detractors argue there is little evidence of rampant voter fraud to support the need for such changes, but instead, the laws unfairly hinders minorities, the elderly and the poor from participating in elections.
“As the leading democracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep our voting system free, fair, and accessible to all Americans,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Penda Hair in a statement. “Yet we are witnessing the greatest assault on voting rights in decades.”
In March 2012, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Richard G. Niess ruled in favor of the League of Women Voters and others, who claimed Wisconsin’s new law erected barriers to full citizen participation in the voting process.
In May of this year, the Fourth District Court of Appeals overturned Niess’ ruling, saying, among other things, that the League "makes no effective argument that, on its face, the [voter ID] requirement makes voting so difficult and inconvenient as to amount to a denial of the right to vote."
Even with that victory, Wisconsin faces another challenge in the face of the Advancement Project’s motion, which alleges that the law is discriminatory as determined by Section 2 of the VRA.
According to evidence submitted to the court, the group said, close to 28,000 African-American and 12,000 Hispanic voters lack a driver’s license or state ID. The numbers equal roughly 16 percent of African-American and 25 percent of Hispanic voters, compared to 10 percent of White voters, who may face difficulty casting a ballot because they lack the required documentation.
The numbers reflect what civil rights groups have been saying all along—that these new laws unjustly target minorities.
Restrictive voter ID laws were among a wave of regressive voting policies that swept across the country in the two years leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Cuts to early voting, voter roll purges, proof-of-citizenship demands, and voter challenges at the polls increased across the country.
And voters of color were disproportionately impacted, activists said, since they were less likely to have state-issued photo ID, more likely to use early voting, more likely to be naturalized citizens, and more likely to be targeted for polling place intimidation.
And the Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which blocked the U.S. Justice Department’s ability to defend citizens from discriminatory voting practices under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, simply empowered even more states to pursue those suppressive laws.
“After Shelby, Section 2 provides one of the last lines of defense against legislatures that would disenfranchise voters of color,” Hair said. “The strength of that defense will be tested for the first time in this case and we are confident it will prevail."