By Leland Ware
Louis L. Redding Chair and
Professor for the Study of
Law and Public Policy
University of Delaware
On July 29, 2016, a federal judge ruled that several provisions of Wisconsin’s voting laws are unconstitutional because they discriminate against African Americans. The circumstances that led to the judge’s decision began when Wisconsin Republicans won legislative majorities in 2011. They immediately enacted several measures that made voting more difficult and manipulated state laws to give themselves a partisan political advantage. This was part and parcel of a massive effort by Republican-dominated state legislatures to suppress the participation of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American voters in the electoral process.
Wisconsin’s tactics included implementing one of the harshest voter ID laws in the nation, restricting early voting hours, changing laws regarding absentee ballots and changing regulations in a way that injected partisanship into polling places. Other changes included unprecedented partisan redistricting.
The lawmakers reduced the time during which municipalities could offer in-person absentee voting from 30 days to 12 and eliminated “corroboration” as a means of proving residence. The laws required that any “dorm list” that would be used with college IDs had to include a certification that the students were United States citizens. The residency requirement for voting was increased from 10 to 28 days before an election.
Another measure eliminated straight ticket voting. Legislators also eliminated the State’s Government Accountability Board authority to appoint special registration deputies who could register voters. Another law prohibited municipal clerks from faxing or emailing absentee ballots to absentee voters other than overseas and military voters.
A City of Madison ordinance that required landlords to provide voter registration forms to new tenants was overturned. This was intended to suppress the votes of students who attended the University of Wisconsin and other colleges in Madison. Another law required all voters to provide documentary proof of residence when registering to vote.
A lawsuit was filed that challenged the laws under the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The judge ruled that several provisions of Wisconsin’s voting laws are unconstitutional as they were designed to suppress African American voter turnout.
The state was ordered to issue credentials for voting to anyone trying to obtain a free photo ID for voting, but did not possess the underlying documents needed to obtain one. He called the state's current process for getting free IDs "a wretched failure" because it has left a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic citizens unable to obtain IDs.
The judge also struck down restrictions limiting municipalities to one location for in-person absentee voting and limiting in-person early voting to weekdays. The Court found that weekday limitations intentionally discriminated against Democratic-leaning African Americans in Milwaukee. The judge invalidated the increase in residency requirements, the prohibition on using expired student IDs to vote and a prohibition on distributing absentee ballots by fax or email.
The Court recognized that laws were designed achieve a partisan objective, “but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.” This was deliberate, unconstitutional racial discrimination.
The Republican Party has gone to extreme lengths to suppress turnout of traditional Democratic constituencies. Their tactics are a throwback to an earlier and uglier era. Disenfranchisement during Reconstruction was based on laws, new constitutions, and practices that were used to prevent African American from voting.
Those measures were enacted by the former Confederates who gained control of state legislatures after federal troops were withdrawn from the South. Their sordid tactics were used to return political control to White Democrats and to impose a regime of racial segregation and White supremacy. The difference this time involves Republican-dominated legislatures that are engaging in massive voter suppression. A different political party is leading the current effort but the racist objectives are the same.