On safeguarding voting rights

Every law has a subtext. For nearly a century, beginning in the 1880s until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern Democrats promulgated laws to suppress the African-American vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other ruses never referenced black voters, but the outcome telegraphed legislative intent: To disenfranchise a large segment of American citizens.

Today, new voter ID laws purportedly designed to curtail voter fraud have consequences similar to past voter-suppression efforts. That these laws tamp down turnout among blacks, Latinos and low-income citizens who gravitate to the other political party echoes the M.O. of Southern Democrats a half century ago. The subtext is distilled in a Chico Marx line from “Duck Soup:” “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

In a 70-page ruling on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman declared that Wisconsin’s voter-identification law violated the 14th Amendment as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling was informed by research conducted by University of Washington political science Professor Matt Barreto and University of New Mexico Professor Gabriel Sanchez.

Barreto and Sanchez developed survey data to determine how many eligible voters in Milwaukee County, WI, lacked the identification required to vote under the new measure. To repeat: These are eligible voters, not fresh-off-the-boat Swedes. Not surprisingly, an unreasonable burden falls on blacks, Latinos and poor folks who are eligible to vote. Judge Adelman notes that “it is absolutely clear that Act 23 (the vacated law) will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.”

As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. Adelman observes that while only 7.3 percent of eligible white voters lack a qualifying form of ID, 13.2 percent of eligible African-American voters and 14.9 percent of eligible Latino voters lack a qualifying ID.

“Blacks and Latinos in Wisconsin are disproportionately likely to live in poverty,” Adelman writes. “Individuals who live in poverty are less likely to drive or participate in other activities for which a photo ID may be required (such as banking, air travel, and international travel) and so they obtain fewer benefits from possession of a photo ID than do individuals who can afford to participate in these activities.”

Barreto’s research also was pivotal in striking down a Pennsylvania voter ID law earlier this year.

So much for the ivory tower. Academics like Barreto advance the public good.

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