In striking down the nation’s most draconian photo ID mandate for voting, a Wisconsin judge said this week of the law in question: “Serious recent efforts to investigate voter fraud have found nothing (emphasis mine) that Act 23 would have prevented.”
Critics typically argue that such laws are unnecessary since voter fraud is rare. But they are actually understating their case. After all, tighter identification requirements can prevent just one type of voter fraud: the use of a false identity to vote. Try though they have, the authorities in Wisconsin have uncovered not a single, solitary case of identification fraud at the polls in recent decades.
In other words, the type of fraud a stricter ID law can possibly curb is rarer than rare. It’s almost non-existent in Wisconsin and, I daresay, throughout the land.
Republicans like to muddy the waters, though, by citing any hint of fraud, however faint, and claiming that a strict photo ID requirement would somehow solve the problem. For instance, official probes of voting have uncovered a few felons who have cast ballots while they were still on probation or parole, in violation of Wisconsin law. The fix? A sterner ID law, of course. Trouble is, identification isn’t the issue. The voting felons had used their real names, which they backed up in some cases with driver’s licenses – the chief form of ID required by the stricken law. Act 23 has absolutely no capacity – I repeat, none – to stop a felon with a requisite ID from illegally voting.
Chaos and confusion prevailed at the polls during the 2004 presidential election in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin, as a large turnout overwhelmed unprepared and understaffed polling sites. Clerical errors and miscues abounded. Republican politicians like to portray this bureaucratic bungling as widespread voter fraud – a bogus claim that Wisconsonite Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, repeated last May. The fix is again, of course, a stiffer ID requirement. The real remedy, however, was a staff better prepared to handle a tidal wave of voters, as evidenced by the smoothly run presidential election of 2008.
The law’s scant benefit contrasts with the ample harm it could do to the sacred voting rights of the 300,000-plus Wisconsin voters who lack a requisite photo ID, Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan noted Tuesday. He became the second Wisconsin judge to permanently bar enforcement of the law on the grounds that it violated the Wisconsin Constitution, which, unlike the U.S. Constitution, specifically protects the right to vote. (The 15th amendment of the federal Constititution does broach the topic, outlawing infringement of the right to vote on account “of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”)
Flanagan ruled on a suit brought by the Milwaukee NAACP branch; Voces de la Frontera, a Wisconisin immigrant-rights group; and 12 individuals. In March Dane County Judge Richard Niess permanently blocked the voter ID law in a case brought by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
The Republican electoral romp in state governments across the country in 2010 led to the passage of tighter ID laws for voting in 11 states, including Wisconsin. Flanagan notes that the Wisconsin law appears to be the strictest in that the range of allowable forms of ID is the narrowest and that the recourse for voters who lack the requisite IDs is the most limited.
The two cases now go to an appeals court, which should pay heed to this insight from Flanagan: “Act 23 addresses a problem which is very limited, if indeed it exists. It does not appear to recognize or account for the difficulty its demands impose upon indigent and elderly citizens who are eligible under the constitution to vote. It offers no flexibility, no alternative to prevent the exclusion of a constitutionally qualified voter. Given the sacred, fundamental interest at issue, it is clear that Act 23, while perhaps addressing a legitimate concern, is not sufficiently narrow to avoid needless and significant impairment of the right to vote.”