How low can the Wisconsin Supreme Court go?
It's a serious limbo competition. But the court's voter ID decision two weeks ago is right down there.
If you followed the voter ID arguments before the court, you have a basic understanding that:
1. Voter ID is a law designed to solve a problem that doesn't exist. There is no history of in-person voter fraud in our state. The court, in its decision, could not cite a single instance. (There was one case of a man voting repeatedly for Scott Walker in the recall. When he went to the polls, he registered as himself.)
2. Conservatives on the court conceded that Wisconsin's particularly onerous voter ID law is a de facto poll tax. Some voters will have to pay money to vote, since they will have to purchase copies of their birth certificates to get a photo ID.
3. The conservatives on the court "solved" this problem in the following way: Instead of sending the law back to the Legislature to fix, so it doesn't violate citizens' fundamental constitutional rights, they chose to issue new administrative rules, telling the guy behind the counter at the DMV how to do his job. The court is officially encouraging that guy to waive the normal document requirements for getting your driver's license -- but without getting into too many specifics.
Got that, DMV guy? The Supreme Court is leaving it up to you to decide this whole undue-burden-on-the-constitutional-right-to-vote thingy. Don't mess it up.
On your worst days at work, just tell yourself this: At least I'm not Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
Imagine being among the top jurists in the country and coming to the office every day to make critical decisions about the future of our democracy with this bunch, who make up their own rules, ignore the issues before them, and, when basic constitutional rights are at stake, knuckle down and add some vague suggestions to the DMV manual.
It was left to Abrahamson, in her dissent, to point out that in its jerry-rigged decision upholding Wisconsin's voter ID law, the majority on the court was creating all kinds of new problems.
As Abrahamson put it, it was "anyone's guess" which government fees voters might or might not have to pay under the new rules to get a photo ID. Besides which, she added, the court shouldn't be interpreting regulations that weren't before it.
But never mind all that.
"The reality is we're going to do everything possible we can to have voter ID in place by this November's general election," Scott Walker's Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said after the court's decision. The law is still held up in federal court.
Over the last several years, all over the country, voter ID laws passed by state legislatures have been making it harder for poor people, students, the elderly and minorities to vote.
Attorney General Eric Holder has compared these laws to the poll tax, which was created to suppress the black vote in the South in the Jim Crow era.
Shirley Abrahamson also brought up Jim Crow in her dissent.
The suspicion that voter ID is really an effort to suppress votes by minorities, students and the poor is strengthened by the lack of evidence that in-person voter fraud is actually a problem. And, Democrats and civil rights activists point out, the people who will be burdened by the law also happen to be Democratic voters, so suppressing their vote benefits Republicans.
The Wisconsin Constitution expressly forbids the state Legislature from passing any law that "impairs or destroys the right to vote."
Here is a sample of how the argument went in court:
Abrahamson brought up her father, a naturalized U.S. citizen who voted in every election but didn't drive and couldn't get a copy of his birth certificate from the country he fled when he came here. "Where does he fit in?" she asked the state.
The state's attorney conceded that some people might have trouble getting proper ID, but "90% would have no trouble" -- implying that denying 10% of citizens the right to vote is no problem.
The NAACP's attorney Richard Saks pointed out that there has not been a single case of voter impersonation charged in Wisconsin. Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman replied that just because no one has been detected committing fraud doesn't mean it is not a problem.
"It's ridiculous," Lester Pines, the attorney who represented the League of Women Voters, said after the hearing. "We could pass a law that says aliens from outer space aren't allowed to vote -- then that problem would be taken care of."
One thing you can count on: If the state Legislature did pass that law, the state Supreme Court would uphold it.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.