A federal judge struck down a Wisconsin voter ID law as unconstitutional because it imposed an unfair burden on the poor and minorities, a move that could set a precedent for other voting rights cases to be decided this election year.
The Wisconsin law, passed in 2011, required voters without ID – many of whom are minorities – to overcome large obstacles to obtain a photo ID to be able to vote, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman wrote in his opinion Tuesday. That violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, he said.
“It is likely that a substantial number of the 300,000-plus voters who lack a qualifying ID will be deterred from voting,” he wrote.
The state attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, said in a statement that he planned to appeal.
Voting rights advocates hailed the ruling as a turning point after years of setbacks, including a Supreme Court decision striking down parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They hope they win similar cases soon in North Carolina and Texas.
“We hope and expect that this decision will be a bellwether in those other states,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU. “I really do think the tide has turned in the legal fight.”
It is the third victory for voting rights advocates in the span of a week: A Pennsylvania state judge declined to reconsider his January ruling striking down a voter ID law, and a judge in Arkansas struck down that state’s voter ID law. (Late Tuesday, however, the Arkansas Supreme Court placed a temporary stay on that ruling.)
The Wisconsin decision is especially significant because it came in federal court and because Adelman relied on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in his decision. Previously, voting rights advocates had used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to argue election-fairness cases, but the Supreme Court voided that option in its Shelby vs. Holder decision, said Jessica Levinson, a professor of election law at Loyola Law School. The Wisconsin case shows that using Section 2, which bans rules that make it more difficult for minorities to participate in the political process, can be effective.
“For proponents of voter ID laws, this is somewhat encouraging,” Levinson said. “The courts are finding that evidence of fraud is not there, and that these laws place disproportionate burdens on certain segments of the population.”
Several states passed voter ID laws after the 2010 elections, when conservatives made big gains in state legislatures. Currently, 31 states require voters to show some form of ID at the polls.
The legal cases in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Pennsylvania are likely to “percolate through the district courts and courts of appeal,” Levinson said, potentially ending up at the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, some states, including Wisconsin and Ohio, have cut back on early voting, raising another election issue that will probably be settled in court.