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Election Day April 2016 (copy) (copy)

Signs outside First Congregational Church direct voters toward the polling location on Madison's Near West Side on April 5, 2016.

Wisconsin election laws on trial in federal court this week likely violate the federal Voting Rights Act by disproportionately affecting voting by minority, young and low-income voters, a report by a UW-Madison professor concludes.

Political science professor Barry Burden filed the report on behalf of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. His testimony took up much of the second day of the nine-day trial at Wisconsin’s U.S. Western District courthouse Tuesday.

Burden’s report concludes that recent election-law changes in Wisconsin depart from the state’s “long history of facilitating voter participation,” calling them “an abrupt and unjustified interruption of the state’s success in administering elections.”

The lawsuit, filed by One Wisconsin Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin and others, challenges a smorgasbord of election changes by Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers since 2011, starting with voter ID. It also questions the process the Department of Transportation uses to provide IDs to those who lack both an ID and the documentation to obtain a free one from the state.

The suit also challenges new restrictions on early and absentee voting, additional requirements for voter registration, and the elimination of straight-ticket voting and corroboration, the process by which a voter can vouch for another’s residency when they register.

The state Attorney General’s office contends the changes do not discriminate and make modest demands for the purpose of preventing voter fraud.

Burden’s report assesses factors laid out by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to determine if local voting laws violate the Voting Rights Act, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in voting. It finds the laws at issue in the court case, including voter ID, are not justified because voter fraud is rare in Wisconsin — especially voter impersonation fraud, the primary type of fraud that voter ID can prevent.

That type of fraud generally is viewed as the least common type of voter fraud, Burden testified in court Tuesday. “There’s just a lot at risk, and it’s not guaranteed to be successful,” Burden said.

Fifty-seven allegations of voter fraud in Wisconsin were reported between 2000 and 2013, with no convictions for voter impersonation fraud, according to a study Burden cited by a group based at Arizona State University.

People of color are disproportionately affected by voter ID because they’re less likely to drive and thus less likely to have a driver’s license, Burden’s study found.


Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.