Commentary: The Voting Rights Case African-Americans Must Watch

Wisconsin is on trial for limiting the voices of voters.

Posted: 11/13/2013 04:08 PM EST

From courtrooms to the streets, civil rights advocates and grassroots organizations nationwide are doubling down to protect voters. Over the past few years, we witnessed an aggressive assault on voting rights, with a wave of policies making it harder to vote either passed or proposed in a majority of states. These measures included laws requiring current state-issued photo ID to vote, cuts to early voting and same-day registration and “show me your papers” proof-of-citizenship practices. The unprecedented attacks on democracy disproportionately affect voters of color. They are widespread, targeted and coordinated.

This week, Wisconsin is on trial for limiting the voices of voters. Advancement Project is challenging Wisconsin’s law requiring voters to present limited forms of government-issued photo ID in order to vote. We plan to show that Wisconsin’s law discriminates against voters on the basis of race. This is the nation’s first Voting Rights Act trial challenging a photo ID law since the Supreme Court’s June 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which blocked the federal government from stopping discriminatory laws and practices by several states and counties, mostly in the South, before they are implemented. 

In the aftermath of the Shelby decision, most national attention has focused on southern states with particularly egregious histories of disenfranchising voters of color, but Wisconsin and other states should not be overlooked. Wisconsin’s law stands to prevent hundreds of thousands of voters from casting their ballots, especially African-Americans and Latinos. Anyone who believes in equal access to the right to vote should pay close attention.

According to Wisconsin’s own data, more than 300,000 already registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or state ID. African-American voters are 40 percent more likely than White voters to lack these forms of ID, while Latino voters are 2.3 times as likely. In order to obtain the required state-issued ID, in most instances a voter must present a certified birth certificate — a process that can involve the inconvenience of applying and paying for a Wisconsin birth certificate or, for those born outside the state, contacting government agencies in other states. For some voters, a birth certificate does not exist at all, particularly elderly African-Americans who were born at home at a time when it was not common practice to record Black births.

This includes registered Wisconsin voters like Rosie Thompson, 79, who was born at her family’s home in Mississippi and was never issued the birth certificate she needs to get a state ID. Despite four attempts to obtain a birth certificate from Mississippi — and sending money to pay for it — she was not able to get any certified record of her birth. And despite being a dedicated voter, even during Jim Crow-era Mississippi, under Wisconsin’s onerous law she may now be prohibited from voting. Rickey Davis, an African-American Army veteran who served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne, has also been unable to get a state-issued photo ID. During two attempts, he presented several forms of documentation, including his veterans ID card, military discharge papers and a Social Security card. Yet Mr. Davis was also turned away because he did not have a copy of his birth certificate. In Wisconsin, a veteran’s ID is not enough to participate in democracy.

Even for many voters who are able to present all the documentation needed, or pay $20 for their birth certificates (or more, for those born out of state), burdens to obtaining ID remain. With all but one of Wisconsin’s DMV offices open only on weekdays, and most open only until 4:30 p.m., many voters are unable to take time off from work to get IDs. Worse still, a quarter of Wisconsin’s DMV sites are open less than one day a month, and not always reachable by public transportation. This is an additional barrier to voting for many working Americans. 

Why is Wisconsin placing these burdens on the right to vote? It’s not to prevent in-person voter fraud. State officials admit that’s not a problem and never has been. No, this law is about preventing voting. It sends an unmistakable message to voters of color that Wisconsin politicians are ready to silence them. Significantly, Wisconsin has recently had political battles that matter to voters of color, like efforts to dismantle labor unions. There is a lot at stake for our families. In a just democracy, we should have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process to ensure that our voices are heard. This is why we are challenging this unjust law now — and why we are confident that we will prevail.

Judith Browne Dianis is the co-director of the Advancement Project.

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(Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

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