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Wisconsin Voter ID Law Faces Court Challenge


First Posted: 10/20/11 05:28 PM ET Updated: 10/21/11 10:40 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- A new Wisconsin law requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls is being challenged in court, with a nonpartisan group arguing the measure violates the state constitution and has the potential to disenfranchise eligible Wisconsin residents.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court on Thursday. Lester Pines, an attorney with the firm Cullen Weston Pines & Bach who is working on the case, explained that their argument against the voter ID law is quite simple: It violates the provision in the Wisconsin constitution's that determines who can vote.

"The Wisconsin Constitution only allows the legislature to exclude the two named classes from voting -- felons and people ruled incompetent," he said in a statement. "The new law creates a third class of citizens who may not vote -- people who do not have ID. This lawsuit challenges the legislature's authority to enact such a law."

Gov. Scott Walker's (R) office did not return a request for comment. Pines told The Huffington Post he anticipates that supporters of the voter ID law may argue that the legislature possesses the constitutional power to regulate elections and enact a voter ID law.

"But they can't enact a voter ID law that creates a class of citizens that are disenfranchised," he said. "So you could have voter ID, but you'd have to have voter ID with some kind of provision that allows people to vote who don't have the proper ID but are otherwise registered and qualified."

The state now has 45 days to answer the lawsuit. They can, explained Pines, allow the case to proceed in circuit court, or petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court to consider it directly.

Walker signed the voter ID legislation into law in May, calling it a "common sense reform" that would "go a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin." State workers were directed to immediately begin asking residents for photo ID before voting, although voters won't be required to present it until the February primary elections. The first general election for which they will have to show ID will take place in April.

Some local officials are already worried what effect the new law will have on the voting process. Earlier this month, the city of Madison held a test run of elections using the new voter ID law. Not only were there long lines, but some voters simply gave up and abandoned the effort before getting to vote.

In September, an internal memo sent around the Wisconsin Department of Transportation went public, sparking controversy over its instructions that employees should not tell state residents they can receive free photo identification from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) unless they ask. Voters who did not receive the free ID had to buy one for $28.

Critics of the voter ID law have compared it to a "poll tax" intended to prevent groups that traditionally vote Democratic from going to the polls. The progressive group One Wisconsin Now has argued that many DMV offices are inconvenient and difficult to reach for people who may have low incomes, not be able to drive or live in rural areas.

In rural and northern Wisconsin, for example, few offices are open more than two days a week and none are open on weekends, according to One Wisconsin Now. Twenty-six percent of the 91 Wisconsin DMV offices are open one day per month or less.

Pines said that while the law clearly has a "disparate impact" on certain groups -- such as students and low-income residents -- his firm is not arguing the case on that basis and is instead focusing on the suffrage provisions of the Wisconsin constitution.

"It's totally different from the federal cases that have been brought. It doesn't have anything to do with due process or disparate impact on people and so forth -- all of which is true," said Pines. "It is a vicious law, and its motives are so transparent that it's breathtaking. Those are the issues that were raised in federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court."

"Founded by the suffragists who won the right to vote for women in 1920 after a decades-long struggle, the League of Women Voters believes voting is a fundamental citizen right that must be guaranteed. We are appalled by the stories the League is hearing about the barriers people are facing in trying to obtain an acceptable ID," said Melanie G. Ramey, president of the Wisconsin League.

Six other states -- Texas, Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Rhode Island -- have passed voter ID laws this year, arguing that they are necessary to combat voter fraud.

Read the complaint:

Correction: This article previously referred to the law firm as Cullen Weston Pines & Branch instead of Cullen Weston Pines & Bach.
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