Legal challenges to voter photo ID in Wisconsin have been underway for four years.
They could end soon, however, based on potential action by the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices are expected to meet next week to decide whether to rule on the law’s constitutionality -- or drop the case.
The roller coaster ride of photo ID began in spring of 2011, when Republican leaders approved tougher voter rules for Wisconsin. One was the requirement that people present government-issued photo identification at the polls.
“The integrity of each and every vote cast here in the state of Wisconsin is imperative,” said Gov. Scott Walker, as he signed voter ID into law. He said it would deter people from impersonating others at the polls.
“To me, something as important as a vote is important whether in one case, 100 cases or 100,000 cases, making sure we have legislation that protects the integrity for an open, fair and honest election,” Walker said.
Opponents fought photo ID, insisting that voter fraud was rare. On the day the state Senate approved the bill, Democrat Lena Taylor argued that it would discourage certain people from voting -- those without a driver’s license or state ID.
“Today the GOP is going to do everything it can to manipulate and predetermine the results of elections,” Taylor said.
The law took effect for the 2012 spring primary. Beforehand, state elections officials began running public service announcements, reminding people to bring IDs to the polls.
Within weeks, the fate of photo ID took an abrupt turn. Judges blocked the requirement, because lawsuits were filed against it.
Over the next few years, state and federal courts upheld the law. Last September, a federal appeals court reinstated photo ID. The decision came, just eight weeks before the November election. So elections officials scrambled to inform voters and prepare poll workers. Milwaukee Election Commissioner Neil Albrecht planned extra training.
“Obviously, in an ideal world, you never want to implement such a significant change in election procedures on the eve of what is projected to be a very high turnout election,” Albrecht said.
At the same time, some people without the proper identification began visiting DMV offices to apply for a state-issued photo ID card. Ninety-four-year-old Berneice Jones of Milwaukee hoped hers would arrive in time for the election.
“I don’t miss no voting,” Jones said.
In the end, voters like Jones and election workers got a reprieve. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the photo ID mandate, because the November vote was quickly approaching.
Kevin Kennedy says the block remains in effect heading into next month’s spring election. Kennedy is head of the state Government Accountability Board.
“You are not required to show a photo ID in order to get a ballot,” Kennedy says.
What’s next is the question of whether the nation’s high court will consider the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s law. The announcement could come next week.
If the justices decline to hear the case, then Wisconsin’s photo ID law would take effect. It’s not clear whether that would occur immediately or after the April 7th election.
Either way, elections officials here would certainly re-launch the public service campaigns they’ve put back on the shelf twice.