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.”
A second Dane County Circuit Judge rejected the law in a July decision stemming from another of the several challenges brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and other groups.
With federal challenges still to be heard, and with the election barely two months away, Van Hollen is asking the state’s high court to make an extraordinary intervention.
Van Hollen’s late-stage intervention—coming at a point when many observers believed the voter ID issue was settled for the 2012 election cycle—is highly significant, as it could give Republicans an upper hand in a state that until recently had generally been seen as leaning toward President Obama and the Democrats.
When Congressman Paul Ryan was tapped by Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential contender’s running mate, there was much speculation about whether the Ryan pick would put the Wisconsinite’s home state in play. But Ryan, who has never run a statewide race, was never going to “deliver” the state on his own.
Wisconsin is a historic battleground state, which has seen some of the closest finishes in recent presidential elections. While Democrat Barack Obama won the state with ease in 2008, Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 took Wisconsin by 0.2 percent and 0.4 percent respectively.
Obama’s led in most recent polls, and he’s still ahead among registered voters by a 49-45 margin in the latest CNN poll. But CNN rates the race in the state a “toss up” and other polls suggest it could be closer.
While Ryan may not provide the GOP with enough of a boost to take the lead, he could close the gap sufficiently so that voter suppression initiatives making it harder for Democratic-leaning voters to cast ballots could have a profound impact. And make no mistake, the Wisconsin voter ID law poses just such a threat.
Judge Niess wrote in his March decision that the Wisconsin law would impose “insurmountable burdens [on] many of our fellow constitutionally qualified electors.”
The judge concluded that the voter ID law threatened to disenfranchise “those struggling souls who, unlike the vast majority of Wisconsin voters, for whatever reason will lack the financial, physical, mental, or emotional resources to comply with [the law], but are otherwise constitutionally entitled to vote. Where does the Wisconsin Constitution say that the government we, the people, created can simply cast aside the inherent suffrage rights of any qualified elector on the wish and promise—even the guarantee—that doing so serves to prevent some unqualified individuals from voting? It doesn’t. In fact, it unequivocally says the opposite. The right to vote belongs to all Wisconsin citizens who are qualified electors, not just the fortunate majority.”