CAP TIMES: ACLU sues over Wisconsin voter ID law

December 13, 2011
Jessica Vanegeren

A federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Milwaukee alleging that Wisconsin's new voter ID law is unconstitutional and will deprive people of the right to vote.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, claims top state officials includng Gov. Scott Walker and Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the non-partisan state elections agency, as well as employees tasked with implementing the law at the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security offices have created a poll tax and other obstacles that present a "severe and undue burden on the fundamental right to vote."

The suit claims this violates the equal protection clauses of the 14th and 24th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

"There will be live bodies that, in some cases, now will face insurmountable obstacles to casting their ballots for free," says Jon Sherman, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta and one of the attorneys on the case.

The law requiring those seeking to vote to show a photo identification card was passed earlier this year by the GOP-led Legislature, who said it was needed to combat voter fraud.

The lawsuit names 18 plaintiffs, representing six classes of voters, who for a number of reasons cannot easily obtain the necessary documents to get a photo ID in Wisconsin.

Those six classes of people are:

* those who for legal or practical reasons are finding it nearly impossible to get the underlying documents like birth certificates or Social Security cards needed to obtain a photo ID in Wisconsin.

* those who will face a severe financial burden to acquire a birth certificate or drive to a state DMV office.

* those who would have to surrender their out-of-state licenses to get a Wisconsin ID.

* those enrolled in state technical colleges who lack an acceptable photo ID.

* those who cannot afford to pay to get a certified copy of their birth certificate in order to get a free photo ID.

* those who lack an acceptable photo ID but have a Veterans Identification Card. The card is issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and includes the veteran's name and photo.

Sherman says the lead plaintiff in the case is Ruthelle Frank, 84, who was born at home in Brokaw and has voted in every election since 1948. She lacks a certified birth certificate, which is required to obtain an acceptable form of photo identification.

When she went to get a copy of her birth certificate she learned her maiden name was spelled wrong on it. Correcting the error could cost as much as $200 or more.

"Rich, poor and everything in between ... we don't think you should have to pay a single cent to get a certified copy of your birth certificate to get a free photo ID," Sherman says. "It's a poll tax."

Another plaintiff is Carl Ellis, 52, who is living in a homeless shelter for veterans in Milwaukee. He cannot afford to get a copy of his birth certificate from the Illinois Department of Public Health's Vital Records Office. Ellis does possess a Veterans Identification Card, but the card is not an acceptable form of identification under the new Wisconsin law.

"If I can serve my country, I should be able to vote for who runs it," says Ellis in a prepared statement.

Plaintiff Sandra Jashinski, 48, of Milwaukee, lacks a photo ID and does not have a Social Security card. Because a photo ID is needed to obtain a Social Security card, Jashinski was denied a card. As a homeless woman, she also has no way to provide the state with an address.

College students account for eight of the 18 plaintiffs. In addition to several that do not want to turn in their out-of-state licenses in order to obtain a Wisconsin ID, the suit also names Domonique Whitehurst, a 17-year-old who turns 18 on Feb. 4, just days before the new law takes effect for the spring primary Feb. 21.

Whitehurst's college-issued Milwaukee Area Technical College student ID is his only form of ID.

Technical college IDs are not an acceptable form of identification under the state's voter ID law.

According to the suit, there were 382,006 students enrolled in state technical colleges in the 2009-2010 academic year. With roughly 4.2 million eligible voters in Wisconsin, those students accounted for roughly 8.8 percent of all Wisconsin voters.

Of that number, roughly 59,000 were minority students. In "sharp contrast," there were 18,000 minority students in the entire UW System, according to the suit.

"The law disproportionately impacts minority students," says Stacy Harbaugh, a spokeswoman with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Republican legislators supporting the law cited the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 upheld Indiana's voter identification law, which is similar to Wisconsin's, as evidence the state's new law could withstand a constitutional challenge.

Given that case, Sherman says the objective with the Wisconsin lawsuit is not to strike down the law in full but to "force the state to create remedies" for the six classes of people affected by the new law.

For example, Sherman says a possible remedy to charging for a birth certificate could be obtaining an affidavit at the DMV when applying for a photo ID.

"That solution doesn't strike down the law, but it gives us a remedy for everyone to vote for free," Sherman says. "What exactly the relief ends up being (for all six groups) remains to be seen. But the Wisconsin law will not be struck down in full. That is clear after Indiana."

The ACLU's suit comes two months after the Wisconsin League of Women Voters filed suit in state court, claiming the law passed in May violates the suffrage section of the state constitution. A hearing on that case is set for Jan. 19 in Dane County Circuit Court.

"All these lawsuits show the incredible problems there are with this law," says Andrea Kaminski, the League's executive director.