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Wisconsin's Anti-Voting Law Heads to Federal Court

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With deceptively little fanfare or attention, a federal judge in Wisconsin is poised to preside over the first trial challenging a photo ID law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. On Nov. 4, 2013, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman will hear a challenge brought by Advancement Project and pro bono counsel Arnold & Porter to the state's 2011 restrictive law. The lawsuit hinges on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars racially discriminatory voting practices. The statute is taking on increased importance in the wake of the Supreme Court's June 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, in which the court blocked preclearance protections under Section 5 of the law.

The Wisconsin trial is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as the leading democracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep our voting system free, fair, and accessible to all Americans. Yet, Wisconsin is one of dozens of states pursuing restrictive voter laws that block some eligible Americans from voting, denying them the opportunity to participate equally in our democracy. Wisconsin's photo ID law is one of strictest in the country. If the law is allowed to go back into effect, it stands to turn back the clock on Wisconsin's historically strong protection of voting rights.

According to evidence submitted to the court in 2012, close to 28,000 African-American and 12,000 Latino voters lack a driver's license or state ID. The numbers equal roughly 16 percent of African-American and 24.8 percent of Latino voters, compared to 9.5 percent of white voters, who may face difficulty casting a ballot because they lack the required documentation. More than 300,000 voters in Wisconsin lack one of the limited forms of state-issued photo ID required to vote under the law. It can be difficult, costly and sometimes impossible to obtain a state-issued photo ID because of the necessary underlying documents, including a birth certificate or passport. Further complicating matters in Wisconsin, the state's DMV offices have no weekend hours and few full-time offices, with a quarter of DMV sites open less than one day a month.

Next, in the aftermath of the Shelby decision, most media attention has focused on states with particularly egregious histories of disenfranchising voters of color. The Wisconsin case should not be forgotten. The anti-voting measure in Wisconsin is part of a broader attack on the right to vote. In the two years leading up to the 2012 election, we witnessed the greatest assault on voting rights in more than a century, with a wave of regressive policies passed or proposed in a majority of states. These measures included restrictive voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, voter roll purges, "show me your papers" proof-of-citizenship practices, and voter challenges at the polls. The unprecedented flood of tactics disproportionately affects voters of color, who are less likely to have state-issued photo ID, more likely to use early voting, more likely to be naturalized citizens, and more likely to be targeted for polling place intimidation.

Finally, voting should be a time when all Americans -- whether rich or poor, young or old, and regardless of race -- have the same say and an equal opportunity to vote. Yet Wisconsin's restrictive voter ID law places burdens disproportionately on the state's voters of color, such as the time and financial costs of getting the underlying documents needed to obtain ID, and traveling to limited DMV offices. That's a far cry from equal access to the polls.

That's what this trial is all about: ensuring equal access to the ballot box for all people. In a post-Shelby world, Section 2 now provides a critical line of defense against legislatures that would disenfranchise voters of color. The strength of that defense will be tested for the first time in this case, and we are confident it will prevail.