Wisconsin's Battle Over Voter Photo ID Law Could Soon Reach an End

Mar 11, 2015

Wisconsin's Spring Election is Tuesday, April 7, 2015.
Credit Michael Newman, Flickr

Legal challenges to Wisconsin’s voter photo identification law have been underway for four years.

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court might decide whether to rule on the law’s constitutionality. Justices blocked the photo ID law last fall – just weeks before the November election.

Now, some organizers wonder if the justices could do an about-face, with only weeks left before next month’s election.

“As has often occurred in the past, we find ourselves sort of in this moment of uncertainty – both voters and election administrators,” says Neil Albrecht, the City of Milwaukee’s election commissioner.

Like others, he has prepared materials to inform people about the law. Then he put them away, pulled them out, and last fall put them back in storage, as courts changed the status of Wisconsin’s law.

A city warehouse holds piles of signs for polling places, describing acceptable forms of photo identification. The state’s voting information website contains a pop-up message, informing viewers that photo ID is not in effect at this time.

Things could change, depending on what the Supreme Court does. Oshkosh Republican state Rep. Michael Schraa is confident the justices would uphold Wisconsin’s law. He says the state based its law on Indiana’s.

“Indiana has had their voter ID law in place since 2008. Their law was found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Schraa says.

Scot Ross insists the two laws cannot be compared. He’s executive director of the group One Wisconsin Now. Ross says it’s harder to get a state ID in Wisconsin, in part because DMV offices don’t offer enough hours and locations for people to apply, and the process can require steps.

“The disparity between the two states makes voter ID impossible to administer constitutionally,” Ross says.

Last fall, Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a plan he said would increase access to state-issued photo IDs. He ordered the Department of Transportation to help track down birth certificates people need to secure an ID.

There are other possibilities too, according to Rick Hasen. He’s an expert in election law at the University of California, Irvine. Hasen says the Supreme Court might take up challenges to a different state’s voting law.

“Also before the court now is a petition from North Carolina, which although not involving voter ID, involves other restrictive voting laws that have been challenged on the same basis, and there’s likely to be a case from Texas coming up too,” Hasen says.

So Hasen says the high court could in effect decide the fate of Wisconsin’s law, by not considering it.

“If the court takes a pass in Wisconsin, it means Wisconsin’s voter ID law would go into effect,” Hasen says.

Perhaps, immediately.

“Which could be somewhat problematic to the Spring Election in the state of Wisconsin, which is scheduled for April 7,” says Neil Albrecht. He hopes the court would keep a block on photo ID until after the April election. If not, he promises Milwaukee’s Election Commission would do what it can to alert people to take identification to the polls.

“Worst case scenario, we could find ourselves in a position of implementing voter ID 17 days before an election,” Albrecht says.

The Supreme Court justices are scheduled to meet a week from Friday to discuss whether to consider Wisconsin’s law.