Wisconsin still the “Selma of the north”
Opinion piece by Rep. Gwen Moore
March 2, 2015
On Saturday, my fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus and I will travel to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On that day 50 years ago, about 600 men, women and children attempted to march from Selma to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, in a peaceful protest of the flagrant disenfranchisement of African-American voters. The march ended abruptly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police brutally attacked the demonstrators, beating them with nightsticks, choking them with tear gas and trampling them with horses. A few months later, repulsed by the images of the violent beatings at the foot of the bridge, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The pilgrimage by caucus members to Selma next week is not simply one of historical remembrance. It will also serve as a present-day reminder that, even with the accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act, barriers to the ballot box persist. This 21st century fight for the franchise is particularly evident in Wisconsin — which has long been recognized as “the Selma of the North.”
The battle over the state’s restrictive voter ID law illustrates why our great state continues to bear this harrowing distinction. Reminiscent of laws from the Jim Crow era that placed burdens on the right to vote, the measure makes it harder for Wisconsin’s voters of color to cast their ballot. It’s why the civil rights organizations Advancement Project, ACLU and the law firm of Arnold & Porter are challenging this restrictive requirement under the Voting Rights Act, recently petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and why the caucus stands beside them in this call.
Regardless of what politicians, bent on manipulating the rules for partisan gain, may say, Wisconsin’s restrictive voting law remains discriminatory. If our elections are to be free, fair and accessible for all voters, the Supreme Court must hear this case and overturn the law without delay.
Based on the state’s own data, about 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters do not have the most common forms of ID required for voting: an unexpired driver’s license or state-issued photo ID. Among those hundreds of thousands of registered voters, African-Americans and Latinos are significantly less likely to have these limited forms of identification. In most instances, obtaining the required photo ID involves presenting a certified birth certificate, which many voters also lack or cannot afford to pay for or track down.
The state’s so-called emergency rule, allegedly designed for people without a birth certificate, is no cure for these problems. Under this process, voters without a birth certificate must complete a form with information about the date and circumstances of their birth. Then the DMV must provide the birth information to the Department of Health Services, which will attempt to verify the information. If it fails to verify the required information, the applicant then needs to provide more records, such as baptismal certificates or hospital records.
Even after forcing voters to jump through all these hoops, an individual DMV administrator has the discretion to accept, or not accept, the alternative documents. This kind of discretion is insufficient to protect fundamental voting rights.
Another crucial note about this process is that it only involves people born in the state of Wisconsin. There is no formal system set up to help find birth certificates and other documents for voters born in other states, voters who are disproportionately Latino and African-American. According to a 2011 University of Wisconsin-Madison study, 75% of white residents were born in Wisconsin, yet only 59% of black residents and 43% of Latino residents were born in the state.
If the Supreme Court fails to stop this discriminatory law, it will cause irreparable harm to voters. The threat to voting rights today, while subtle, is as pernicious as it was 50 years ago. Barriers to the ballot box constitute a modern-day version of Jim Crow. Just as the citizens of Selma stood up for a just democracy in 1965, the Congressional Black Caucus and many others are standing up to protect the rights of voters here in the Selma of the North. We urge the Supreme Court to take this case, and we invite anyone concerned about the future of fundamental voting rights to join us in this critical fight.
Gwen Moore, a Democrat, is a member of Congress representing the state’s 4th District.