Wisconsin's voter ID law is again being challenged, this time in federal court.
It's the only active federal challenge of a photo ID law, say representatives of the national and state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, who are bringing the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin federal court, seeks an injunction against enforcement of the voter ID law, which takes full effect on Feb. 21, 2012 for Wisconsin's spring primary elections.
"The photo ID law imposes a severe and undue burden on the fundamental right to vote under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; violates the Twenty-Fourth and Fourteen Amendments to the United States Constitution as an unconstitutional poll tax; and violates the Equal Protection Clause o the Fourteenth Amendment in arbitrarily refusing to accept certain identification documents," the December 13 complaint (PDF) states.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network filed suit in October against Wisconsin's law in state court, and the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is also expected to file a state challenge this week.
Under Wisconsin's voter ID law, voters need to present a photo ID at the polls. The ACLU lawsuit argues that many residents, including seniors, minorities and veterans, do not have acceptable forms of photo ID. Other forms of photo identification, including student IDs, will not be accepted at the polls. Requiring only certain types of government-issued photo IDs imposes a burden on the right to vote and effectively imposes an unconstitutional poll tax, the lawyers argue.
"The state of Wisconsin has created a voter ID system that is making it very hard or impossible for residents to exercise their cherished right to vote," said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, in a news release.
"This lawsuit is the opening act in what will be a long struggle to undo the damage done to the right to vote by strict photo ID laws and other voter suppression measures," said Jon Sherman, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "Across the nation, legislators are robbing countless American citizens of their fundamental right to vote, and in the process, undermining the very legitimacy of our democracy. We intend to redirect their attention to the United States Constitution."
The lawsuit argues the new law will also negatively affect homeless voters, many of whom do not have photo identification. "Protecting homeless persons' right to vote is crucial, since voting is one of the few ways that homeless individuals can impact the political process and make their voices heard," Heather Johnson, civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said. "By limiting participation to Wisconsin residents with photo identification, this law effectively silences homeless persons' voices. With homelessness rising by 12 percent in Wisconsin since the recession began, we cannot allow the state to set this dangerous and unconscionable precedent."
The lawsuit was filed "on behalf of all eligible Wisconsin voters who may not be able to vote under the law," including Ruthelle Frank of Brokaw, who has been in the news lately.
The subject of Dec. 4 story in the Wausau Herald, Frank, 84, does not have a birth certificate because she was born at home. Because she does not have a birth certificate, Frank cannot get a photo ID. She could petition the Register of Deeds in Madison to generate a birth certificate for about $200. Normally the cost is $20, but the attending physician at Frank's birth misspelled her maiden name so Frank would have to ask the court to amend the original document.
"I have exercised my right to vote in every election since 1948," Frank said. "I should not suddenly be barred from voting just because I don't believe in paying for identification in order to vote. That's like a poll tax and sends this country back decades ago when it comes to civil rights. Whatever happened to the Constitution protecting my right to vote?"
Other plaintiffs include Carl Ellis, 52, a U.S. Army veteran living in a homeless shelter in Milwaukee and Anthony Sharp, 19, an African-American Milwaukee resident who does not have any of the accepted forms of photo ID under the law. Sharp lives with his family and doesn't have the money to purchase a $20 certified copy of his birth certificate in order to vote.
Ellis' only photo ID is a veteran ID card, which he cannot use to vote. "If I can serve my country, I should be able to vote for who runs it," Ellis said. "Veterans and others who do not have a certain type of photo ID should not be kept from voting. These laws are undemocratic and un-American."
The 2011 Wisconsin Act 23 (PDF) was signed into law May 25. Six other states also recently passed voter ID laws: Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Other measures critics say suppress voter participation, including limits on early voting periods and elimination of same-day or Election Day registration, have been enacted nationwide.
The ACLU has also submitted comment letters to the U.S. Department of Justice regarding discriminatory voting laws in South Carolina and Texas and has intervened in court challenges in North Carolina and Alabama to the Voting Rights Act. The ACLU also filed motions to intervene in similar cases filed by Arizona and Georgia.
Attorneys on the Wisconsin Voter ID case include Jon Sherman, Laughlin McDonald and Nancy Abudu of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Larry Dupuis and Karyn Rotker of the ACLU of Wisconsin and Heather Johnson and Karen Cunningham of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
The text of the lawsuit follows.