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Court Rejects "License to Discriminate" in Wisconsin

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Vote Here sign
Sean J. Young,
Legal Director ,
ACLU of Georgia
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April 29, 2014

When I was growing up as a kid in the ’80s, many of my peers spent their summers on socially-enriching activities, like playing outdoors. I, however, spent most of my summers in front of the TV, watching daytime game shows (I’m an old soul) and, of course, ’80s movies.

One of my favorites was License to Drive.

In that movie, Les, played by Corey Haim, tries desperately to get his driver’s license but is hilariously put through the wringer during his road test, where the DMV official, played by the indomitable James Avery, challenges him to smoothly drive through heavy traffic without spilling a single drop of coffee from a fragile cup perilously perched on the dashboard.

That scene, however entertaining, in some sense represents what until today was a deplorable reality in Wisconsin, where in 2011 the legislature passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. For the first time in Wisconsin history, people actually needed a “License to Vote” (e.g., driver’s license or state-issued ID), something that a disproportionate number of low-income voters do not have or do not have the resources to easily obtain.

Today, a federal court declared that the voter ID law violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. It found that Wisconsin’s voter ID law made it substantially harder for lower-income people to vote than their wealthier counterparts.

But the court didn’t stop there. Because Wisconsin’s sad history of discrimination and minority political exclusion has resulted in wide income disparities by race. The court also concluded that the voter ID law disproportionately harms voters of color. The court found that making it harder for minorities to vote was not justified by ghost stories about voter fraud, which the state was unable to substantiate with a single shred of evidence at trial.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Wisconsin, along with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and Dechert LLP, challenged the law in federal court in November. Voters testified about the difficulties they had to endure just to get ID, difficulties far more harrowing than what Les had to go through.

For example, Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., an African-American voter, talked about the ordeals that he had to go through to get a “License to Vote,” which he could not obtain from the DMV unless he amended his birth certificate. For his own “road test,” he went on multiple 12-hour bus rides to and from his birthplace of Decatur, Illinois, simply to fetch documents needed to amend his birth certificate, which he was told would also cost $400 to $600 dollars to fix. As he testified at trial, he didn’t have “400 to 600 cents.”

The tide is turning against voter ID laws, including just last week in Arkansas, as courts and judges increasingly recognize that government cannot try to muffle the voices of the poor and the marginalized under some unsubstantiated pretext about “voter fraud,” simply because they do not like what they have to say. As the judge said in his ruling, “”virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin and it is exceedingly unlikely that voter impersonation will become a problem.” Our voters choose their elected officials – not the other way around.

Instead of allowing voter ID laws to make people pass absurd bureaucracy navigation tests in order to obtain licenses to vote, it is time to put voter ID laws themselves to the test and to flunk them for the voter suppression laws that they are. As the court rightly recognized, politicians do not have a “License to Discriminate.”

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