You may have already heard the story about the 84-year-old Wisconsin resident, Ruthelle Frank, who will be disfranchised by our state’s new law requiring voters to show a photo ID to vote.
Today the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty filed a federal lawsuit charging that Wisconsin’s voter ID law is unconstitutional and will deprive citizens like Ruthelle of their basic right to vote. The lawsuit is the only active federal challenge against a voter ID law, the most common type of legislation that is part of a nationwide attack on the right to vote.
“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 Constitution.”
The complaint says that allowing only certain types of photo ID imposes a severe burden on the right to vote in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. It also states that the law violates the 24th and 14th amendments because it effectively imposes an unconstitutional poll tax. The lawsuit was filed the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to speak about the importance of ensuring equal access to the ballot box.
“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. “Wisconsin residents, including veterans, minority voters and seniors who have been voting for decades, will be turned away from the polls under this law’s restrictive photo ID requirements. Our lawsuit aims to block this unconstitutional law so that Wisconsin can continue its proud tradition of high participation in elections.”
The law will also have a severe impact on 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,” said Heather Johnson, civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “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 ACLU and the Law Center filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin on behalf of 17 eligible Wisconsin voters who may not be able to vote under the law. They include:
Ruthelle Frank, 84, of Brokaw, who does not have a birth certificate. When she was born at home in 1927, her mother recorded her birth in the family Bible. Under Wisconsin’s law, she is unable to obtain an ID needed to vote. She herself is an elected official, having served on her village board since 1996. “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.”
Carl Ellis, 52, is a U.S. Army veteran living in a homeless shelter in Milwaukee. His only photo ID is a veteran ID card, which is not accepted under the law. “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.”
Anthony Sharp, 19, is an African-American Milwaukee resident who does not have any of the accepted forms of photo ID under the law. Sharp, who lives with his family, does not have income needed to purchase a $20 certified copy of his birth certificate in order to vote. “You shouldn’t have to pay all this money to be able to vote,” he said. “I’m a citizen and was excited about voting, but I don’t have the money to pay for all these documents. Every American must be able to vote, not just those who can afford to get an ID.”
The 2011 Wisconsin Act 23 was signed into law May 25 and is effective starting with the state’s primary in February 2012. Under the law, Wisconsin voters will need to present a certain type of photo ID, which many eligible voters do not have. Many photo ID alternatives are excluded. For example, the law does not allow technical college and veteran ID cards. More than 380,000 students are in Wisconsin’s technical college system, and over 15 percent of them are minorities. Voter suppression laws disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly, students, people with disabilities, and low-income and homeless voters.
In addition to Wisconsin, six other states recently passed voter ID laws: Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Other voter suppression measures that have been enacted nationwide include limiting the early voting period, eliminating same-day or Election Day registration, and restrictions on those who help register people to vote. 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 cases in which North Carolina and Alabama are challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. The ACLU also filed motions to intervene in similar cases filed by Arizona and Georgia.
Attorneys on the 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.
If you or someone you know will be disfranchised by Wisconsin’s photo ID requirements at the polls in 2012, tell us the story.
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