In a decision issued Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin from implementing its Voter ID law for the Nov. 4 election.
The Supreme Court's decision continued a streak of political whiplash, reversing a September ruling from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that would have allowed the state to enforce the law. The appeals court was reversing the decision of a federal judge who found the law unconstitutional.
The law was passed in 2011 but has only been in effect for one election, during a spring primary the following year.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Ken Mayer served as an expert witness during the state trial surrounding the law. He answered a few questions on Friday about the Supreme Court's order.
Cap Times: Do you think the back-and-forth on the Voter ID law will have an effect on voter turnout?
Ken Mayer: It’s hard to say, because there are so many moving parts. You have a fair amount of confusion over what the policies actually are. You have efforts to mobilize and counter-mobilize along with provisions that were very likely to have prevented some people from voting. If the full Voter ID law remained in effect for the election, I suspect that … because of the way it operated in Wisconsin, you actually probably would have seen a detectable decrease in turnout.
Now that the Supreme Court has put the stay back on — it reversed the 7th Circuit decision — now the law is not in effect for this election, leaving for later the question of, ultimately, the resolution of the legal question, probably by the Supreme Court. It’s really hard to say. It’s difficult to compare just one election to another, but I think certainly turnout will be higher than it would have been if the ID laws had been in place. How much is tougher to tell.
You were an expert witness in the state trial. What argument did you offer?
First of all, there’s simply no evidence of significant amounts of voter impersonation. It’s an empirical question. People who support Voter ID, many are adamant that voter fraud is rampant … Those claims are false. They just are. There is no evidence. There has never been any evidence of significant voter impersonation fraud in Wisconsin, or in fact, anywhere else.
These laws — I’m no longer pulling my punches. There is no debate here. The notion that this law does something useful is just flat-out false. There’s no evidence of the types of fraud it can prevent. There’s no evidence that it will have any effect on the confidence of elections, or that it will increase turnout. There is no evidence that these laws address an actual problem.
This law has essentially been lying dormant, not in effect, for more than two years. Over the last three or four years especially, it seems like Wisconsin's political landscape has changed significantly. How does that factor into this election?
There are stakes in this election for a lot of voters. Each side perceives the other as destructive. If you’re a Burke supporter or a union member, you see Walker as an overt threat to the middle-class way of life. If you’re a Walker supporter, many will see Democrats, liberals or unions as a threat. Both sides see the other as a threat to the things they see as important. That kind of polarization is not unusual. It’s not a question of each side presenting policies and advocating for them … The debates mirror what’s been going on at other levels — polarization in Congress, Democratic outrage at Republicans, Republican outrage at Obama. Everybody is just outraged.
It’s a long question about why things are that way, but there are sharp edges in this election on both sides. One indicator of that is there aren't a lot of people who are undecided. Look at the Marquette polls, it's something like 5, 7 percent. There are not a lot of undecided people. It’s a question of turnout, mobilization and identifying people who can be persuaded to change their mind. That’s hard to do.