A federal appeals court on Friday offered what some described as a compromise over Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law. But a closer look suggests the new rules will still keep eligible voters from the polls, maintaining a barrier to voting in a crucial presidential swing state this fall. To voting rights advocates, the arrangement underscores more starkly than ever how voter ID laws are designed not to ensure the integrity of the election, as their backers claim, but to make voting harder for certain groups. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit last week overturned a lower court’s ruling that had required Wisconsin to let people without acceptable ID cast a ballot if they signed an affidavit attesting to their identity. The appeals court said the affidavit option wasn’t necessary, because Wisconsin recently promised to make it very easy to get an ID at the DMV. Specifically, in a set of emergency rules issued in May amid litigation over the ID law, the state said it would mail a free temporary ID to anyone who comes to a DMV office to request one, showing whatever documentation they have. (Previously, many voters were required to show a birth certificate or other underlying documentation to get a voter ID). As long as the state keeps to that pledge and publicizes the new rule, there’s no need to soften the law, the appeals court unanimously concluded.
But that raises a troubling issue: The state’s long-standing rationale for the ID law, passed by Republicans in 2011, has been the need to stop in-person voter-impersonation fraud (set aside, for now, that it can’t point to a single case of such fraud). “All it takes is one person whose vote is canceled by someone not voting legally and that’s a problem,” Gov. Scott Walker, the law’s most crucial backer, said recently in defense of the ID measure. “I always tell folks who oppose [the ID law], tell me whose vote they want canceled out.” If anyone can now get a voter ID without showing proof of their identity, how does the law stop fraud?
Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Walker, said everyone who requests an ID at the DMV must pose for a photograph. “Therefore, anyone trying to commit fraud will have given us his or her photo and documents,” Evenson added.
But to Sean Young, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, which is leading the challenge against the law, the state’s new openness to giving ID to all comers is revealing after for years it insisted that giving it to those who don’t prove their identity would allow for fraud. “For them to now claim any voter can get a photo ID at the DMV raises the question: Is the state really going after phantom voter fraud, or is it just trying to put unnecessary hoops in front of vulnerable voters?”