Matt Pommer: Voter ID is a matter of racial issues

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, May 11, 2014

The federal court ruling against requiring photo IDs to get a Wisconsin ballot might help boost Gov. Scott Walker’s hopes of becoming president of the United States—assuming he wins re-election in November. It could show he can win without voter suppression laws.

Federal Judge Lynn Adelman has blocked the Republican-enacted Wisconsin law requiring voters to show photo IDs before getting ballots. He said blacks and Latinos are more likely to lack photo IDs or the documents required to get them. They are more likely to be poor and less likely to drive or do other things that require photo IDs. About 9 percent of Wisconsin voters, or 300,000 people, lack valid IDs.

Republicans called the decision politically motivated. Adelman was a Democratic state senator from 1977 to 1997 before being appointed a federal judge. Republicans contend they just want to ensure the integrity of elections in Wisconsin.

But Adelman noted the state defendants could not point to a single case of voter impersonation “at any time in the recent past.” That’s not surprising because the state already imposes stiff penalties—a $10,000 fine and three years in prison—for voter impersonation.

Adelman said he would consider any changes that were enacted to correct the law, but Republican legislative leaders seemed to have thrown in the towel on that idea, saying there is insufficient time to make changes before the November election. Nor did they even hint how they might meet Adelman’s objections to the law.

Republicans have been pushing the voter ID issue in states where they control both the legislatures and governors’ offices. Wisconsin is one of the states in which the GOP has total control of state government.

Adelman’s decision cited a section of the Civil Rights Act, providing a new element in judicial reviews of voter identification measures. The matter likely will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court closer to the 2016 presidential election.

If Walker wins the 2014 gubernatorial race without the photo ID law in place, it would convince the Republican establishment that he could be a viable national candidate. It would be another example of Walker’s political luck. When tens of thousands of public employees demonstrated against his anti-labor law, he attracted national attention. When critics rushed a recall election, and he won, his national stature was boosted again.

But national polls have shown Walker far down among the list of potential Republican presidential candidates. He needs something to attract more attention.

Several years ago, Walker and Republican National Chairman Raince Priebus suggested there could be widespread voting fraud in Wisconsin elections, hinting it could be as high as 4 percent. That sort of Republican talk later was toned down to simply needing photo IDs just to prevent suspicion of voting fraud.

Republican legislative candidates don’t need the photo ID requirements. Republicans have gerrymandered legislative district lines to virtually assure their control of the Legislature through 2020.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, says the state will appeal Adelman’s federal court decision. In the meantime, the state also wants to find another federal court that would suspend Adelman’s decision while the appeal process goes on. Either way, that would keep the legal story alive in newsrooms across the state as the gubernatorial election campaign unfolds.

Here’s how the scenario unfolds: Democrats will continue to say the GOP is trying to reduce the voting by nonwhites as well as the poor and elderly who lack photo IDs. Republicans will say they just want Wisconsin elections to be as pure as the driven snow.

A touch of irony. Adelman’s decision on the racial impact of the photo ID law came down the same day that professional basketball was imposing stiff penalties on a team owner for making racist remarks.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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