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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

Issue of the Week: Protecting the Right to Vote

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While the rest of the world is expanding voting rights, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majority in Wisconsin have worked hard to shrink them for state citizens—including those who have voted in the past.

But two new lawsuits filed last week, in addition to one filed in October by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, could help to restore this basic right of all citizens.

The two suits—one filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin by the ACLU of Wisconsin and others, the other filed in Dane County Circuit Court by Voces de la Frontera and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP—document the difficulties that qualified voters face when attempting to obtain an acceptable voter ID for voting. The potentially disenfranchised voters include 84-year-old Ruthelle Frank of Brokaw, Wis., who doesn't have a birth certificate, although her birth had been recorded in a family Bible. Frank is an elected official who has voted regularly. But lacking a birth certificate and other documents, this Brokaw Village trustee would be unable to obtain an acceptable photo ID to vote next year.

While Frank's story may seem like an anomaly, others documented in the suits show that the law could affect many more eligible Wisconsin voters. For example, veterans ID cards will not be accepted as voter ID, potentially disenfranchising individuals who served the country in the armed forces. Low-income voters will have a difficult time coming up with the money for the supporting documents that can be used to obtain a state ID. Rural residents will have to drive long distances to get to a state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office—offices that typically are closed on evenings and weekends.

Student IDs and out-of-state driver's licenses won't be accepted. That will have a hugely adverse effect on the voting rights of young people, especially the thousands of young minority students at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). The Legislature's lack of recognition of technical college IDs as voter ID is especially troubling, since there are almost twice as many African-American and Latino students at MATC (18,413) as there are in all four-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin System (11,453). Disenfranchising these students could sway the results of any hotly contested race.

These lawsuits have an uncertain future. They could force a judge to issue a temporary injunction, which could stop the implementation of the law in whole or in part, before a final verdict is reached. But whether that injunction could be granted before one of the big elections next year—the spring primaries, local spring races, recall elections or the fall elections—is not yet known.

What is known is that Wisconsinites have to continue to push to assert our right to vote. That means voting for candidates who support voting rights and organizations that work to protect the right to vote. We're facing an uphill battle in Wisconsin, but elected officials cannot ignore the will of the people forever.

If you cannot obtain an ID or will have difficulty doing so and you want to share your story, you can contact the ACLU at www.aclu-wi.org.

Heroes of the Week: Milwaukee Women's Center Volunteers

The Milwaukee Women's Center (MWC), established in 1980 as an emergency shelter and now a division of Community Advocates, offers services and treatment "for women, men and children whose lives have been affected by domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and poverty." Today, the MWC provides emergency shelter and transportation, a 24-hour crisis line (414-671-6140), specialized services and support, programming for children, case management and counseling.

Volunteers play an important part in the nonprofit's mission by answering calls on the crisis line and helping out with special events. Readers who wish to donate their time and talents to the MWC are urged to call 414-270-2957 or email volunteer@mwcinc.org