Wisconsin Attorney General JB Van Hollen, a partisan Republican closely aligned with Governor Scott Waker and US Senate candidate Tommy Thompson, has asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reinstate a rigid voter ID law before the November election.
Van Hollen is actually asking the high court to bypass the appeals process and make what would, in effect, be an emergency intervention to force voters to show photo identification in order to cast ballots. Lower-court judges have determined that more than 300,000 Wisconsinites do not possess forms of identification that would meet the standards of the law, which campaign watchdog and good government groups have identified as one of the strictest in the nation.
Coming at the same time as pitched battles over voter ID legislation and changes in early voting and election-day registration rules in other battleground states, the move appears to be the latest gambit in a national strategy by Republican officials to erect barriers to electoral participation that critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union have identified as a “voter suppression” strategy.
President Obama and the Democrats had been seen as leading in Wisconsin. But with Mitt Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, as his vice presidential running mate, the GOP has refocused its attention on the state. Additionally, the state’s open US Senate seat race pits Republican Thompson against Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in a contest that could help to define control of the Senate.
Van Hollen’s initiative should be seen in this context.
The attorney general, a strong backer of the Romney-Ryan ticket who appeared just last week as Thompson’s Senate primary victory party, has asked the Supreme Court to overturn rulings by two local courts in Wisconsin that judged the law to be unconstitutional.
When the voter ID law was struck down initially in March, the ruling was so definitive that some thought the issue was off the table for 2012. “A government that undermines the very foundation of its existence—the people’s inherent, pre-constitutional right to vote—imperils its legitimacy as a government by the people, for the people, and especially of the people,” wrote Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess in a decision that was widely hailed for its clarity and precise application of the state constitution. “It sows the seeds for its own demise as a democratic institution. This is precisely what 2011 Wisconsin Act 23 does with its photo ID mandates.”