We should all be watching Wisconsin’s voter ID law fight

Alice Weddle was born at home in Mississippi 59 years ago, delivered by a midwife. She was never issued a birth certificate, a common circumstance for African Americans born in the segregated south. Weddle, who moved to Wisconsin with her family when she was three years old, never had a driver’s license and is a regular voter. But without a birth certificate, she is unable to get the photo ID that was required to vote under Wisconsin’s restrictive voter ID law.

Weddle’s access to the ballot, along with hundreds of thousands of others in the state, was cleared when a federal judge struck down the law in April. In a lawsuit brought by Advancement Project and pro bono law firm Arnold & Porter, we showed that, in burdening the right to vote for Wisconsin’s African-American and Latino citizens, the measure violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In his decision, the judge also rejected the state’s argument that a voter ID law was needed, stating that allegations of voter fraud have absolutely no merit.

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The Wisconsin victory marked the first time a voter ID law has been defeated under Section 2, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race. That’s especially important since one year ago this week, in its Shelby County v. Holder decision, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the provision (Section 5) of the VRA which required federal pre-approval of voting changes in jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices.

For nearly 50 years, the VRA had effectively blocked voter discrimination before it could take hold. On the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, we are reminded of how much we lost. Fighting voter suppression laws under Section 2, as we did in Wisconsin (a state that had not been previously covered by Section 5) requires taking states to court and proving that their voting laws are discriminatory. It places the burden on voting rights attorneys and communities of color, and it places tremendous pressure on litigation, which involves vast amounts of resources and time. Even with the win in Wisconsin, we’re seeing this cycle continue to play out there.

Instead of accepting the judge’s decision, the state of Wisconsin is fighting tooth and nail to keep these discriminatory laws on the books. Last month, state officials appealed the judge’s order, filing with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling. We are now facing a drawn-out legal battle over the issue, with another set of court arguments expected in the coming months.

It’s unfortunate that Wisconsin officials are using limited state resources in a desperate attempt to defend an unnecessary and racially discriminatory voting measure. Make no mistake: this legal battle is intended to keep partisan politicians in power by restricting the votes of people of color. The casualties of this war on voting rights will be older African Americans like Alice Weddle, born in the rural South when it was not common to record Black births; people unable to afford time off from work to make it to Wisconsin’s limited DMV offices, which are only open on weekdays and mostly during daytime hours; and the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters – disproportionately voters of color – who lack the required form of voter ID.

The nation’s first case to test the might of Section 2 against voter ID laws, the Wisconsin case has set a legal precedent for how voter ID laws in other states can be defeated. What happens next in the state has implications for the entire country. As the leading democracy in the world, it is our responsibility to ensure states do not enact laws that obstruct the inalienable right to vote. This is why we should all be watching Wisconsin.

Hair is co-director of Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.