By Brendan O’Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – A federal trial to determine whether Wisconsin’s controversial voter identification law discriminates against minorities is scheduled to begin on Monday in a case seen as a possible precedent for similar laws in other states.
Voter ID laws – which require government-issued identification before voting – have become a political and racial flashpoint across the United States. Democrats generally oppose the measures and many Republicans back them.
The trial in Milwaukee combines two federal lawsuits filed on behalf of dozens of individual voters by several organizations including the League of United Latin American Citizens, Milwaukee Area Labor Council and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“As the leading democracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep our voting system free, fair, and accessible to all Americans,” said Penda Hair, a director at the Advancement Project, an organization that helped bring the suits to be heard by the federal court. “Yet we are witnessing the greatest assault on voting rights in decades.”
About three dozen U.S. states have passed laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls. Supporters say the measures prevent election fraud while critics contend the laws make it harder for low-income and minority citizens to vote.
In August, the U.S. Justice Department sued Texas, accusing state lawmakers of denying racial minorities the right to vote. During the same month, an appellate court blocked Pennsylvania’s voter ID law on similar grounds.
The Wisconsin measure, passed in 2011 by a Republican-controlled legislature, requires voters to present photo identification such as a driver’s license at polling places for federal, state and local elections.
Supporters say it prevents voter fraud by requiring would-be voters to prove that they are citizens and are registered to vote.
The law helps prevent fraud “by making it much more difficult for those who commit voter fraud to pose as registered voters or register under fictitious names,” said Republican Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen in a 2011 memo to lawmakers before the law was passed.
The federal suit accuses the state of violating the Voting Rights Act, which bars voting practices that discriminate based on race.
According to one of the complaints, blacks and Latinos are “far less likely” than whites to have a drivers license and are less likely to obtain identification and “face difficulties in doing so.”
As a result, the law requiring voters to show identification to cast a ballot “makes it significantly more difficult for members of these groups to vote and thereby suppresses their vote,” the complaint said.
Altogether, four lawsuits have been filed against the voter identification law in Wisconsin, two in federal court and two in state court.
In one of the state cases, implementation of the law was blocked by a circuit court judge, though it is now on appeal. In the other state case, the Wisconsin Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld the law, overturning a lower court ruling that struck it down.
It is not immediately clear how a decision in the federal trial will affect the state cases.
The voter identification law was not in effect during two key recent elections – the general election in November, 2012, nor the election in June, 2012, when Republican Governor Scott Walker survived an attempt to recall him from office.