Posted on May 1, 2014

Federal Judge Strikes Down Wisconsin’s Voter ID Law

Patrick Marley et al., Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 29, 2014

In a decision that could have implications nationally and in Wisconsin’s November elections, a federal judge on Tuesday struck down the state’s voter ID law, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The law known as Act 23 had already been blocked by a state judge. For the law to be put back in place, supporters would have to overturn both the state and federal decisions–a possibility that could prove difficult between now and the Nov. 4 election for governor.

“There is no way to determine exactly how many people Act 23 will prevent or deter from voting without considering the individual circumstances of each of the 300,000 plus citizens who lack an ID,” U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman wrote in his 70-page ruling. “But no matter how imprecise my estimate may be, it is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.”

Adelman, who is based in Milwaukee, found the state didn’t have an appropriate rationale for imposing a voter ID requirement. In-person voter impersonation–the only type of fraud a voter ID law can prevent–is nonexistent or virtually nonexistent in Wisconsin, he wrote.

“Because virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin and it is exceedingly unlikely that voter impersonation will become a problem in Wisconsin in the foreseeable future, this particular state interest has very little weight,” he wrote.


Adelman, a former Democratic state senator known for sponsoring the state’s open records law, determined that in practice the law requiring voters to show one of nine types of photo IDs at the polls established an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote. It also violated the federal Voting Rights Act because its effects hit Latinos and African-Americans harder than whites, he wrote.

Under the voter ID law, minorities “must pay the cost, in the form of time or bother or out-of-pocket expense, to obtain what is essentially a license to vote,” he wrote.

He issued an injunction barring the voter ID law from being enforced.

State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who defended the law, immediately pledged to take the case to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.


“We are very pleased that the judge recognized what we believe we showed at trial, which is that Wisconsin’s voter ID law did have a discriminatory effect on African-American and Latino voters,” said Karyn Rotker, a senior attorney for the state ACLU.

Dale Ho, director of the national ACLU’s voting rights project, said he expected the decision to be a “bellwether” as federal courts consider challenges in Texas and North Carolina.


In his ruling, Adelman laid out a process for considering any action taken by lawmakers to fix the flaws he identified. He said he would hold expedited hearings on whether any amendments to the law would be legal and could be enforced at the next election.

“However, I also note that, given the evidence presented at trial showing that blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to lack an ID, it is difficult to see how an amendment to the photo ID requirement could remove its disproportionate racial impact and discriminatory result,” he wrote.


[Assembly Speaker Robin] Vos said Republicans had tried to accommodate critics by allowing people to get free state-issued IDs. But Adelman found too many barriers remained for those who didn’t have IDs; for instance, under the voter ID law, people still have to pay a fee to get copies of their birth certificates, which are necessary for the free IDs.


In Wisconsin, the voter ID law was in place for the low-turnout February 2012 primary, but then struck down by two Dane County judges. An appeals court overruled one of the Dane County decisions, but the other ruling remains in place.

The state Supreme Court is now considering both those cases and is expected to rule by this summer. During arguments in the cases in February, some members of the court–including one of the conservatives who control the court–raised concerns about aspects of the voter ID requirement.

Adelman’s ruling deals with two challenges, brought in federal court. He heard the cases together and issued a single decision because they shared similar elements.

In the federal cases, those suing include the ACLU, Cross Lutheran Church, labor unions and the Wisconsin chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Even if the state Supreme Court finds the voter ID law is in keeping with the state constitution, the law will remain blocked by the federal court.