WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Wisconsin's voter identification law Monday, though it had blocked the state from requiring photo IDs ahead of November’s midterm election.
The decision is a setback for civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project, which had hoped the court would take up the case and find that the law disproportionately impacts racial minorities, seniors, students and those with disabilities. Republicans believe that voter ID laws prevent fraud during elections, while Democrats believe that such laws are passed in order to suppress demographics that are more likely to vote for their party.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is a huge step backward for our democracy,” Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair said in a statement Monday. “The 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters who lack the limited forms of photo ID needed to vote in Wisconsin -- disproportionately African Americans and Latinos -- deserve to have their voices heard in our political process. The values enshrined in our Constitution, and protected in the Voting Rights Act, are undermined when burdensome laws like photo ID requirements make the ballot box inaccessible to any eligible voters. Our elections should always be free, fair and accessible to all citizens. Under Wisconsin’s restrictive photo ID law, they simply are not.”
Wisconsin's law was passed by the legislature in 2011 and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Last year, a federal district judge declared it unconstitutional, but in September a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The Supreme Court blocked the law from taking effect ahead of the election, as absentee ballots already had been mailed containing no information about the need to present photo identification.
Legal experts believe that the justices will eventually decide to settle the issue.
Both sides of the voter ID debate now turn their attention to Texas, where a similar law is pending before a federal appeals court, and North Carolina, where a voter ID requirement will go into effect in 2016 unless the courts rule against it. The court allowed Texas' law to go into effect for November's election, leading some Texans to have problems voting because of the identification requirement.
Voting is already underway in Wisconsin for school board, municipal and Wisconsin Supreme Court elections to be held April 7. State officials announced following the court's decision not to take up the case that they would delay the law's implementation for the April election, as voting rights advocates had requested.
"We're pleased the state has agreed with the ACLU's position that imposing a new restriction on voters in the midst of an election is a recipe for disaster," Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "For now, the voters of Wisconsin will be able to cast their ballots free from the burdens placed on them by this law. But this should be the case for voters permanently, not just for one election. We are evaluating our next steps in the fight for the right of all Americans to vote free from unnecessary barriers."
In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law by a 6-3 vote. Justice John Paul Stevens, in the court's lead opinion, wrote that voter fraud was a real risk that “could affect the outcome of a close election.”
This story has been updated with news that Wisconsin officials will delay the law's implementation for the April election.