By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked Wisconsin from enforcing its strict voter identification law in this year’s election.
By a 6-3 vote, the justices granted an emergency appeal from civil rights lawyers who argued it was too late to put the rule into effect.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union had noted the state had already sent out thousands of absentee ballots without mentioning the need for voters to return a copy of the photo identification.
It would be “chaos,” they said, for the state now to have to decide whether or not to count such ballots because the voters failed to comply with the new law.
Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. The six justices in the majority did not issue a written opinion to accompany the decision to lift an order by a lower court that would have allowed the law to take effect.
At nearly the same time, a federal judge in Texas struck down that state’s new voter ID law on the grounds that it violated the constitutional right to vote and discriminated against racial minorities.
Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott said the state would appeal the ruling.
The Wisconsin and Texas cases were the two most closely watched tests of new voter rules this year. In both states, the Republican-led legislatures sought to tighten the rules for voting and to require all registered voters who did not have a driver’s license to obtain a photo ID card at a state motor vehicles office.
Civil rights lawyers in Texas said more than 600,000 of its registered voters did not have the required identification.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican and a strong supporter of the voter ID rule, is locked in a tight race for re-election. Democrats feared the law would block some of their supporters from the polls, although the potential impact remains uncertain.
Wisconsin’s Legislature adopted the photo ID rule three years ago, but until last month the requirement had been put on hold by state and federal judges.
The issue has divided legislatures on partisan grounds, with Republicans solidly in support of the requirement and most Democrats opposing it. In the Wisconsin case, the issues divided judges along the same lines.
In April, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, a Democratic appointee, blocked the voter ID rule from taking effect. He said more than 300,000 of Wisconsin’s registered voters — or 9 percent of the electorate — did not have a current driver’s license or U.S. passport that would allow them to cast a ballot.
Voters who were poor, elderly, black or Latino would more likely be affected by the new rule, he said. To obtain a voting card, these residents were told they must go to a state motor vehicles office and present their birth certificate.
On Sept. 12, a three-judge federal appeals court panel in Chicago lifted Adelman’s order and said Wisconsin could enforce the photo ID rule now. The judges on the panel, all of whom were Republican appointees, discounted the significance of the rule. Besides, they said, voters had had three years to get ready for it.
The full appeals court then split, 5-5, on whether to reconsider that decision.
Lawyers for the ACLU filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court. Their appeal argued that the election is too close to impose such a change in the voting rules.
Putting the requirement into place now “will sow confusion at the polls and suppress voting in the November 4 general election in Wisconsin,” they said. “Chaos in an election — especially when entirely preventable — is undemocratic.”
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, urged the justices to turn down the appeal. He said that “only a small percentage of voters still lack ID” and that “this focus on a small fraction of the electorate is not an adequate justification” to prevent enforcing the rule now.
Determining the impact that the rule might have had on the election is difficult. The number of people without photo IDs may be lower now than when Adelman issued his order. In addition, the turnout of poor and minority voters tends to drop disproportionately in midterm elections, so many of those who don’t have an ID might not have voted anyway.
The state’s leading public opinion survey, the Marquette University poll, found last week that just over 1 percent of registered voters in the state said they did not have a “currently valid photo ID such as a Wisconsin driver’s license, U.S. passport or military ID card,” but among likely voters, that share dropped to less than half a percent.
Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr