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Appeals court ruling could allow those who can't get IDs to vote anyway
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Appeals court ruling could allow those who can't get IDs to vote anyway

WSJ Voter registration photo

Jalisa Galvin, with her 3-year-old daughter, Aa'laisa Batchelor, fills out information to register to vote this month.

A federal appeals court has sided with groups arguing that Wisconsinites who face “daunting obstacles” to meet the state’s voter ID requirement should be able to vote without an ID.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by a three-judge panel in the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, breathed life into a narrow legal challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

It likely means a federal judge will determine how to deal with voters unable to comply with the voter ID requirement, according to Larry Dupuis, legal director for the Wisconsin arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Such voters include those who don’t have a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, to meet the requirement and can’t produce the documents, such as a birth certificate, to get a free ID from the state.

Dupuis said the ACLU doesn’t know how many people face such hardships, but the group estimates it is more than 1,500 in Milwaukee alone.

The plaintiffs’ argument “is potentially sound if even a single person eligible to vote is unable to get acceptable photo ID with reasonable effort,” according to the judges’ opinion, authored by Judge Frank Easterbrook.

“The right to vote is personal and is not defeated by the fact that 99 percent of other people can secure the necessary credentials easily,” Easterbrook wrote.

Voter ID was made law in Wisconsin in 2011 but, due to a string of legal challenges, didn’t take effect in a statewide election until this year.

In Wisconsin and other states that have implemented voter ID, it has been politically explosive. The law’s supporters, nearly all of whom are Republican, argue it’s a reasonable step to prevent voter fraud. Critics, most of whom are Democrats, decry it as an attempt to suppress voting by groups that tend to vote for Democrats, such as the very poor, college students and minorities.

The ACLU and the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty filed a federal lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s voter ID law in 2011. The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2014.

But the groups pressed the suit, saying that some people face special obstacles to obtain the ID needed to vote under the law. The appeals panel on Tuesday told U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman to address voting among certain groups:

  • Voters unable to obtain acceptable photo ID because of errors on birth certificates or other documentation.
  • Voters who need a credential from a government agency that won’t issue one until the state Department of Motor Vehicles first issues photo identification, which the DMV won’t do until the first credential has been obtained.
  • Voters who need a document that no longer exists, such as a birth certificate issued by an agency whose records have been lost in a fire.
  • The appeals panel also noted that in another state with a voter ID law, Indiana, voters “unable to obtain a complying photo ID for financial or religious reasons may file an affidavit to that effect” and have their vote counted on a provisional basis.

Johnny Koremonos, a spokesman for the state Department of Justice, said the ruling affirms the constitutionality of the voter ID law and affects only a “narrow” group of people: those who can’t obtain a free ID through the state Department of Transportation after “reasonable efforts.”

“Given the overwhelming success of the DOT program, and the fact that our State’s recent primary elections involved record turnouts, we are confident that we will prevail on the narrow issues that the Court remanded on,” he said.

Reid Magney, a spokesman for the state elections board, said he could not immediately comment.

In 2014, Adelman struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law on the basis that it could prevent voting among many people, but that decision was overturned by the federal appeals court in Chicago. ACLU attorneys asked the court last week to revive the narrower lawsuit, leading to Tuesday’s ruling.

Contact Mark Sommerhauser at 608-252-6122 or Contact reporter Molly Beck at 608-252-6135 or

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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