In a major victory for voting rights, a federal judge struck down Wisconsin’s voter identification law last week, ruling that requiring voters to show a state-issued photo ID at the polls discriminates against low-income and minority voters. Legal experts say the decision in a state that’s been called the “Selma of the North” for its history of racial conflict has important implications for legal challenges to similar laws passed in North Carolina and Texas. The ruling is “absolutely a blueprint” for the courts considering those other challenges, Katherine Culliton-González of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that challenged the Wisconsin law, said last week during a press call about the decision. “This case is very symbolic of turning the tide toward democracy,” Culliton-González added. Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature passed the photo ID requirement in 2011. The law was in force only for the 2012 primary before it was temporarily blocked.
The case ended up in federal court, challenged by the Advancement Project and pro bono law firm Arnold & Porter on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Wisconsin, Cross Lutheran Church, Milwaukee Area Labor Council, and the Wisconsin League of Young Voters Education Fund. During the two-week trial held last November, the plaintiffs’ attorneys showed that hundreds of thousands of eligible Wisconsin voters — disproportionately African-American and Latino — lack the ID needed to vote under the law.
To obtain a state-issued ID in most cases, voters need to present a certified birth certificate. That can involve applying and paying for a Wisconsin birth certificate, or, for those born elsewhere, contacting government agencies in other states to obtain one. But some voters do not have birth certificates — especially elderly African-Americans who were born at home in the rural South at a time when it was not universal practice to record the births of black babies.