The debate over state voter-ID laws in the lead-up to November’s elections may have gained a national audience, but the legal action has played out largely in Midwest and Southern courtrooms to this point. That’s not to say Seattle hasn’t been well-represented. University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto has been in the middle of most of it. Or at least his research has. The 37-year-old professor has lately been a man in demand. The research he and his colleague, New Mexico professor Gabriel Sanchez, are becoming known for has become part of the standard playbook for lawyers challenging voter-ID laws. Using statistically sound large-swath surveys on a state-by-state basis, Barreto’s findings have demonstrated that not only are blacks, Latinos, and minorities less likely to possess valid photo ID, they’re also less likely to have the documents necessary to obtain such ID.
According to critics of voter-ID laws—which have now been pursued, in one form or another, in nearly half the states in the union—research confirms that such laws create voter disenfranchisement along racial and socioeconomic lines. These laws have proliferated in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, in which the court, by a controversial 5-4 vote, struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring states to obtain federal preclearance before changing voting regulations or practices. With the federal preclearance hurdle removed, states that pass voter-ID laws can move quickly to implement them—and have, to the dismay of many, including the national legal arm of the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU Voting Rights Project staff attorney Sean Young says Barreto’s methodology and findings have been “critical to our success” in challenging the laws. “He’s very important to our work, and his reputation is unassailable,” Young says of Barreto. “Certainly we expect to rely on him in the future.”
Last month the effort logged its biggest victory to date when a Federal court struck down a Wisconsin law, signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker in 2011, requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot. During the trial, Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Clayton Kawski rolled out the traditional argument in favor of voter-ID laws—the prevention of voter fraud—to no avail. It marked the first successful federal court challenge to a voter-ID law and the first victory under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. If it holds, the decision is likely to have large implications for arguments regarding the constitutionality of voter ID.