Wisconsin judge halts state photo ID law for April 3 election

MADISON, Wis. (PAI) — Calling it “the single most restrictive voter eligibility law” in the nation, Wisconsin Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan on March 6 issued a temporary injunction stopping the state’s requirement to show a photo ID  in the April 3 Wisconsin elections.

Reaction to the ruling in the Madison-based court split on party lines. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and dozens of other public officials felt “vindicated” and “elated” while right-wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters – who pushed the voter ID law through – hinted darkly at an immediate appeal.

Election officials immediately started retraining poll workers on how to let people without a state photo identification card vote in the statewide nonpartisan elections April 3, which also includes a partisan component, a GOP preferential primary for president.

Agreeing with the plaintiffs – the Milwaukee NAACP and Voces de la Frontera – that they were likely to win the trial set for April 16 to issue a permanent injunction, the bearded veteran judge noted the complaint was based on the controlling Wisconsin Constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, it spells out explicitly the requirements for a voter and had led the Wisconsin Supreme Court to step in frequently since the 1800s to protect that “sacred right” despite the normal deference due to the state legislature.

Flanagan cited his decision’s compatibility with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling several years ago upholding the more flexible Indiana voting law. Again and again he cited the thoroughly documented testimony by the plaintiffs’ key witness, respected University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. Kenneth Mayer, who used census data to estimate 220,000 constitutionally qualified voters don’t have the type of ID required under the so-called Act 23.

While not required in his decision, Flanagan singled out Mayer’s evidence that the rule hit disproportionately hard on minorities, the elderly and indigent. He also quoted from the 40 affidavits of disenfranchised voters submitted by the plaintiffs. Unlike previous decisions, Flanagan noted, Mayer’s uncontested analysis was “competent, well-founded, entirely credible, and persuasive.”

The need for an immediate temporary injunction, the judge wrote, was a hard point but the “scope of the impairment has been shown to be serious, extremely broad and largely needless.” The judge also pointed out the basic uselessness of the imposition, noting there is “no evidence of any voter fraud that would have been prevented by Act 23.”

The Wisconsin law is part of a nationwide effort by the right wing-GOP-business coalition to curb voting rights. Voter ID measures, and more, have been introduced in 30 states and enacted in several of them. In the South, the Obama administration’s Justice Department is challenging the statutes under the Voting Rights Act’s sections that specifically apply to states and cities with past histories of discrimination. But it has shied away from challenging voter ID and other such restrictive laws elsewhere.

The temporary injunction that stops Wisconsin’s photo ID law is just one of several federal and state lawsuits moving forward. Another Dane County court just approved a full hearing for the League of Women Voters challenging Act 23’s constitutionality. The ACLU has filed new cases of disenfranchised disabled voters saying in a federal lawsuit that the voter ID bill violates the Voting Rights Act.

Conservative news media immediately highlighted that Flanagan last year had signed the Recall Walker petition (circulated by his wife), which puts him in the company of 1 million other Wisconsin citizens. They did not mention he is a Vietnam veteran, former Navy Seal and prosecutor appointed to the bench by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Flanagan’s ruling did not change other aspects of the law – signing a poll book, 28-day residency, no witness allowed at the polls to vouch for your vote – but unless the state can grease through an appeal, it means that as of now that voters lacking a photo ID cannot be blocked from casting ballots on April 3.

Walker and his supporters coordinated “disappointed” references to a “common sense” solution, without discussing the impediments the judge found. Walker tweeted a comparison to showing a photo ID to getting cold medicine. His tweet produced merriment on the Internet.

But even if the state greases an appeal through a state high court that has previously been friendly to Walker’s legislation, there is a cleverness in Flanagan’s decision, since it cites how frequently the Wisconsin Supreme Court acted to correct the legislature when it attempts to limit the “inherent, fundamental and sacred” right to vote outlined in the Wisconsin Constitution.

Dominique Paul Noth is Editor of The Milwaukee Labor Press.

Photo: Madison, Wis., March 12, 2011. People’s World




Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.