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With voting already underway for the April 7 general election in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court moves to back the state's restrictive voter identification law. (Photo: Sandor Weisz/cc/flickr)

'Recipe for Disaster' as US Supreme Court Refuses Challenge to Voter ID Law

As general election already underway, Wisconsin law threatens to impact 300,000 voters

Lauren McCauley

In a move that will impact hundreds of thousands of voters and may carry national implications, the Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a challenge to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's restrictive voter identification law.

Immediately after the high court rejected, without comment, to hear the case of Frank v. Walker, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed an emergency motion with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking that the court stop the law from taking immediate effect. In Wisconsin, voting is currently underway in the April 7 general election as absentee ballots have already been sent to voters and early voting began Monday morning. ACLU warned that if the law is immediately enacted, some 300,000 Wisconsin voters will be impacted.

"Imposing a new restriction in the midst of an election will disenfranchise voters who have already cast their ballots," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "It is a recipe for disaster." 

Voting rights advocates warn that Walker's voter ID law, which requires voters to produce one of a few specified forms of photo identification in order to vote, is among the most restrictive in the nation and disproportionately impacts Black and Latino voters, who are more likely to lack the required identifications.

"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," said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the national civil rights organization the Advancement Project. "Our elections should always be free, fair and accessible to all citizens."

According to the ACLU, which along with the ACLU of Wisconsin, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and Dechert LLP, are co-counsel in this case, the Wisconsin law stands in violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the 24th and 14th amendments because it effectively imposes an unconstitutional poll tax on eligible voters. Further, it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bans the use of voting practices that have a disparate negative impact on racial and language minorities.

In a press statement on Monday, Rev. Michelle Yvette Townsend de López, lead pastor of Milwaukee’s Cross Lutheran Church, said the announcement was "disheartening to all who believe in the values of a just democracy."

"After earlier generations fought for voting rights, the Supreme Court’s failure to intervene to hear and possibly halt this discriminatory law—the modern-day version of Jim Crow—is discouraging.  We will not stop our fight, however, to ensure that all people can participate in our democracy. Regardless of age, race, gender or economic status, every eligible voter deserves to have their voices heard.” 

The Supreme Court's action is seen as a big win for the Republican governor, whose policies frequently mirror those advocated for by the powerful conservative-backers, the Koch brothers.

More broadly, there is concern that the Supreme Court's refusal to challenge the Wisconsin law now paves the way for similar legislation, such as in Texas and North Carolina, where new voter ID laws are currently being challenged in local courts.

"Permitting these laws to go into effect and disenfranchising thousands of voters casts a cloud on the integrity of our democracy, especially as we head into the 2016 presidential election," Ho added. "It’s a disgrace."

And Katherine Culliton-González, senior attorney with the Advancement Project, agreed that combating such laws is critical, "not only in Wisconsin but on a national scale."

Culliton-González continues: "The rise of photo ID requirements burden or disenfranchise millions of registered voters who lack the limited forms of identification required, who are disproportionately women, voters of color, youth, the elderly and persons with disabilities. The Supreme Court passed up a critical opportunity to intervene and protect American voters from losing our say in our democracy."

More optimistically, Rick Hasen at the Election Law Blog notes that the Court's refusal may end up being a "blessing in disguise." The liberal justices, Hasen speculates, may be hoping that pending legislation in North Carolina and Texas "will be better vehicles for getting voter ID laws struck down."

Hasen continues: "As I’ve long argued, the best way for liberals to cut their losses is to stay out of the Supreme Court when possible. Things could have been worse if the Court took Wisconsin than if they didn’t.  And if you trust Justice Ginsburg, trust her her in not voting to grant cert in this case."

The voter ID law was struck down by a federal trial court in April 2014, but that decision was overturned by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Until today, the law had been placed on hold by the Supreme Court while it considered whether to hear the case.

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