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voter id lawsuit Day 8

A defense witness says free IDs may reduce racial disparities in voting.

Wisconsin’s voter ID law, instead of widening racial disparities, as critics charge, actually reduces possible racial gaps in who has ID cards, according to an expert who testified in federal court Wednesday.

The number of Wisconsinites who lack voter IDs also may be far less than previously estimated, according to M.V. Hood III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Hood is a witness for the state’s defense against a lawsuit challenging voter ID and other recent election-law changes by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers.

Plaintiffs in the suit say the changes illegally restrict voting access for minorities, urban residents, the very poor and college students. Their challenge rests in part on a few eligible voters who lack ID cards and have tried, unsuccessfully, to get free ones from the state.

A judge’s decision in the case could determine if there will be new changes to Wisconsin’s voter ID requirement, which is among the nation’s strictest.

Hood’s report to the court says he knows no reason Wisconsin’s recent election changes “have, or will have, a detrimental impact on the ability of Wisconsin voters to cast a ballot, including minority voters.”

Hood cites the state’s free voter ID program as an example of how voter ID actually reduces racial disparities. The program offers free IDs to eligible Wisconsin voters who lack other forms of ID, such as driver’s licenses.

Data provided by the Department of Transportation show it issued about 128,000 original free voting IDs through April and more than 420,000 total IDs, including duplicates and renewals. About 37 percent of the original IDs went to blacks or Latinos, who make up about 9 percent of Wisconsin’s citizen voting-age population.

“To the degree that a racial gap in ID possession may exist in Wisconsin, it is clear that the no-cost state ID program is acting to alleviate any such disparity,” Hood wrote in his report.

The lawsuit focuses in part on a petition process, which the plaintiffs describe as flawed, for people who lack IDs and cannot get free ones from the state because they lack required documentation. Those people, too, are disproportionately minorities — as are the handful whose petitions have been denied, according to evidence provided in the trial earlier this week.

The Walker administration earlier this month announced a stopgap measure aimed at helping those struggling to get an ID to vote in November.

In his report, Hood gave the court an estimate of how many Wisconsinites may not have IDs that meet the voter ID law.

The estimate, devised by comparing lists of registered voters from the state’s election agency with ID records at the state Division of Motor Vehicles, is less than about 153,000. Earlier estimates pegged that number at about 300,000.

Hood’s report notes the U.S. Constitution charges states with handling voter qualification and election administration. “Within constitutional parameters, states have the ability to try and safeguard the ballot box,” Hood testified.

Voter ID proponents say the requirement is needed to prevent voter fraud. Critics respond that the type of fraud that ID requirements can prevent — voter impersonation, in which a prospective voter assumes another’s identity — is extremely rare and that voter ID often doesn’t stop it.

Hood also pushed back against another change at issue in the lawsuit: new restrictions in access to early, or in-person absentee, voting. Despite those reductions, use of that type of voting has increased, Hood reported.

Also challenged in the trial are new requirements for voters to prove where they reside and the elimination of straight-ticket voting and corroboration, the process by which a voter can vouch for another’s residency when they register.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.