Whenever people say that strict voter-ID laws don’t disenfranchise eligible voters, I tell them the story of Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., whom I’ve written about before for The Nation.
Holloway, a 58-year-old African-American man, moved from Illinois to Wisconsin in 2008 and voted without problems, until Wisconsin passed its voter-ID law in 2011. He brought his expired Illinois photo ID, birth certificate, and Social Security card to get a photo ID for voting, but the DMV rejected his application because his birth certificate read “Eddie Junior Holloway,” the result of a clerical error.
After being told it would cost between $400 and $600 to fix his birth certificate at the Vital Records System in Milwaukee, Holloway spent $200 on a bus ticket to Illinois to try to amend his birth certificate. He made seven trips to government agencies in two different states, but he still couldn’t vote in Wisconsin’s April 5 primary.
Today a federal district court in Wisconsin delivered a major victory for voters like Holloway, ruling that those who are unable to obtain a voter-ID in Wisconsin can instead vote by signing an affidavit. The preliminary injunction in a challenge brought by the ACLU protects the voting rights of thousands of Wisconsinites who faced disenfranchisement in November.
Nine percent of registered voters in Wisconsin, 9 percent of the electorate, lacked a government-issued ID when the law was passed. “Although most voters in Wisconsin either possess qualifying ID or can easily obtain one, a safety net is needed for those voters who cannot obtain qualifying ID with reasonable effort,” wrote Judge Lynn Adelman. “Because there are likely thousands of eligible voters in Wisconsin who lack qualifying ID, it is virtually self-evident that some of them will either need to exercise extraordinary effort to obtain qualifying ID or be unable to obtain ID no matter how hard they try.”
The implementation of Wisconsin’s voter-ID law has been a disaster. The state provided no money to educate the public and dismantled the non-partisan agency tasked with overseeing Wisconsin’s elections. As of last month, the state’s DMV had rejected nearly a fifth of all applicants for a voter ID, 85 percent of whom were African American, Latino, or Native American.
Republicans have been clear about the law’s purpose. When asked why the GOP would carry Wisconsin in November, Congressman Glenn Grothman responded, “Now we have photo ID.” State Senator Mary Lazich argued for the bill in a closed-door meeting of the Senate GOP caucus by saying, “We’ve got to think about what this could mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses around the state.” Seventy percent of Wisconsin’s black population, which voted for Obama over Mitt Romney 94 to 6 percent, lives in Milwaukee, while 18-to-24-year-olds favored Obama over Romney by 26 points. A chief of staff for a former GOP state senator said Republicans were “giddy” about making it harder to vote.
This is a significant ruling against a bad law. Because a panel of Republican judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the law in 2014, the lower court could only soften the rough edges. (The voter-ID law and other restrictions, such as cutting early voting and making it harder to register to vote, are being challenged in a separate federal trial, with a ruling expected soon.)
It will matter greatly how effectively Wisconsin implements the change and makes the public aware that they do not need strict voter-ID. Judge Adelman modeled his remedy after North Carolina’s similar “reasonable impediment declaration” for voters without ID. However, there were widespread problems when North Carolina’s voter-ID law first took effect in the March 15 primary, with voters turned away from the polls without being offered an affidavit or forced to take “spelling” tests to vote.
As Kelly Fetty wrote recently in Medium, “What looks good on paper may fall apart in practice.”
Still, for disenfranchised voters like Eddie Lee Holloway, an imperfect solution is better than none.