Last Friday, a federal appeals court reinstated Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which will require state residents to show a photo ID when they vote in the Nov. 4 general election. The ruling by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses an April decision by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, who said that the law placed an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.
Wisconsin’s voter ID law was signed into law in 2011 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
In a perfect world, the voter ID provision would make sense: have all registered voters present photo identification at the polls to prevent voter fraud. However, it is not a perfect world and opponents of voter ID laws say it targets the poor and minorities. More importantly, it’s a law that seeks to resolve a problem that really does not exist.
ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that specializes in investigative journalism in the public interest, reported on its website that about 11 percent of U.S. citizens (roughly 21 million), don’t have a government-issued photo ID. “This figure doesn’t represent all voters likely to vote, just those eligible to vote,” it said. “Given the sometimes costly steps required to obtain needed documents today, legal scholars argue that photo ID laws create a new ‘financial barrier to the ballot box.’”
In his ruling last April, Judge Adelman said the law “violated the federal Voting Rights Act because minorities are less likely than whites to have IDs,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
According to the Journal Sentinel, Judge Adelman said about 300,000 people in Wisconsin do not have photo IDs. Requiring people to show IDs “would discount far more legitimate votes than fraudulent ones,” said the Sept. 12 report. The judge concluded that the voter ID law would only curb voter impersonation, which occurred 10 times out of more than 2,000 alleged election fraud cases since 2000, reported ProPublica.
Rick Hasen, a professor and election law specialist at the University of California-Irvine, told ProPublica that most election fraud involves election officials or absentee ballots.
The timing of the law’s reinstatement also causes a concern. With six weeks to go before the Nov. 4 elections, how can the estimated 300,000 state residents who lack a photo ID be expected to have one ready? Even with newly introduced procedures for obtaining photo ID cards, will the poor be expected to pay for them? What about the nearly 12,000 absentee ballots that have already been distributed to voters?
From a faith perspective, the voter ID issue was best addressed last spring by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference’s John Huebscher. In a column appearing in The Compass June 6, Huebscher said the “principle of proportionality” (a term found in criminal law) should be used in evaluating the voter ID law.
To determine whether this principle is justified, said Huebscher, “one must first ask: Is there a problem with voter fraud in our state?” The answer is no, he added.
“Research of voter records for the past several elections shows almost no fraud exists,” said Huebscher. “Elections in Wisconsin are clean and about as well administered as activities operated by fallible human beings can be.”
Huebscher also said photo ID requirements will have a “disproportionate impact” on the poor and marginalized who “are already less likely to vote than more affluent Americans.”
“All in all, it seems clear that a photo ID requirement flunks even a basic test of proportionality,” concluded Huebscher.
So why pass a law that is not necessary and can lead to discriminatory acts? It’s a question we must ask our lawmakers.