A petition asking the Supreme Court to consider the fate of Wisconsin’s voter ID law begins with a powerful quote: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Yet, this quote may prove more revealing than the authors of this petition may have intended, as these words do not come from a court decision upholding the right to vote. Rather, they are the opening line of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case which made it easier for wealthy donors to influence elections. The question facing the Supreme Court in Frank v. Walker, the Wisconsin voter ID case, cuts much closer to the “right to participate in electing our political leaders” than McCutcheon did. McCutcheon struck down a $123,200 cap on donations to federal candidates and political committees — a decision that, by its very nature, only benefited the very wealthy. Frank, by contrast, will consider to what extent illusionary concerns can justify restrictions on the right to vote itself. Yet, if the Roberts Court’s past is prologue, they are unlikely to pay the same regard for the actual right to vote that they do for the right of wealthy individuals to use their fortunes to influence elections. The plaintiffs’ petition asking the Court to hear Frank was filed last month. Wisconsin’s response to that petition is due to the justices on Monday.
Frank presents two distinct legal questions: whether Wisconsin’s voter ID law violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws and whether it violates the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racially discriminatory voting laws. And the plaintiffs challenging Wisconsin’s law present strong arguments in support of both claims. Among other things, they bring to the justices a district court’s finding that “approximately 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin, roughly 9% of all registered voters, lack a qualifying ID,” and thus are currently unable to vote under the state’s law. Meanwhile, though the state tries to justify its voter ID law as necessary to prevent voter fraud at the polls, after two years of investigations, Wisconsin “could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.”
So the law potentially disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of voters, based on their lack of an ID, yet it advances no other legitimate purpose in the process.