MADISON, Wisconsin — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked Wisconsin from implementing a law requiring voters to present photo IDs, overturning a lower court decision that would have put the law in place for the November election.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the law constitutional on Monday. The following day, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project filed an emergency request asking the Supreme Court to block the ruling.
On Thursday night the U.S. Supreme Court issued a one-page order that vacated the appeals court ruling pending further proceedings. Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the application should have been denied because there was no indication that the 7th Circuit had demonstrably erred.
"Obviously we're thrilled that people are going to be able to vote in this election," said Molly Collins, associate director for the ACLU of Wisconsin.
The ACLU, the Advancement Project and their allies now have 90 days to file a formal petition asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, Collins said, noting that the deadline lies well beyond Election Day so the law can't be reinstated by Nov. 4.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen defended the law.
"I believe the voter ID law is constitutional, and nothing in the Court's order suggests otherwise," he said in an emailed statement.
The dissenting justices raised concerns that absentee ballots had been sent with no notification of the need to present photo IDs — and that there was not enough time to address this issue before the November polls.
"We will be exploring alternatives to address the Court's concern and have voter ID on election day," Van Hollen said.
But opponents of the law were adamant that the decision removed the photo ID requirement.
All registered Wisconsin voters can cast ballots "regardless of whether or not they have a driver's license or other state-issued photo ID," Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair said in a statement.
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said the order "puts the brakes on the last-minute disruption and voter chaos created by this law," that he said imperiled the vote for thousands of registered voters in Wisconsin.
The decision came on the same day that a federal court in Texas ruled in favor of the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against Texas's voter ID law. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder welcomed both decisions.
"This Department will never yield in its commitment to protecting that most sacred of Americans' rights — the right to vote," Holder said in a statement.
Wisconsin's photo ID law has been a political flashpoint since Republican legislators passed it in 2011. The GOP argues the mandate is a common sense step toward reducing election fraud. Democrats maintain no widespread fraud exists and that the law is really an attempt to keep Democratic constituents who may lack ID, such as the poor, minorities and the elderly, from voting.
The law was in effect for the February 2012 primary but subsequent legal challenges put it on hold and it hasn't been in place for any election since.
The ACLU and allied groups persuaded a federal judge in Milwaukee to declare the law unconstitutional in April.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the decision. A three-judge panel ruled last month that the state could implement the law while it considered the merits of the case, sparking outrage from the ACLU, its allies and Democrats who contended that state election officials couldn't re-implement the law in time for the Nov. 4 elections and that chaos would reign at the polls.
A flurry of legal jousting ensued. The ACLU asked the Supreme Court last week to take emergency action to block the appeals panel's decision. On Monday the 7th Circuit issued a full ruling declaring the law constitutional, a decision that was all but certain given the initial order allowing the state to move ahead, promoting the ACLU to follow Tuesday with another emergency request to the Supreme Court.
Karnowski reported from Minneapolis.
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