Shaky ground

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The federal government’s Fair Elections Act may have been changed after the Harper Conservatives backed down from some of the stricter parts of their so-called “perfect” legislation — but south of the border, it’s worth looking at what’s happening with one particular part of similar legislation.

The Harper government wanted to require voters to present particular pieces of identification before voting — an effort, the government said, to deter the casting of fraudulent ballots.

Similar laws in the United States, though, are being struck down by the courts and what’s interesting is why.

The latest case is in Wisconsin, where a judge ruled that state’s law essentially targeted particular groups of voters, those who were less likely to support that state’s Republican government.

The judge wrote that the state’s 2011 law violated the 14th amendment of the constitution. According to the judge, it also violated the Voting Rights Act, because the rules could affect a citizen’s right to vote based on race or colour.

“I find that the plaintiffs have shown that the disproportionate impact of the photo ID requirement results from the interaction of the requirement with the effects of past or present discrimination,” Judge Lynn Adelman wrote in the decision. “Blacks and Latinos in Wisconsin are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. 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.

“There is no way to determine exactly how many people Act 23 will prevent or deter from voting without considering the individual circumstances of each of the 300,000-plus citizens who lack an ID. But no matter how imprecise my estimate may be, it is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes,” Adelman wrote.

Similar laws have been toppled in states like Arkansas and Pennsylvania.

Supporters of the law, like Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, sound strangely like Canada’s Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poiliviere: “Our intention was never to make it hard to vote,” Mr. Vos told the New York Times. “All we want to do is make sure we have some reasonable proof that people are who they say they are.”

Here’s Poiliviere: “I think most Canadians would think it reasonable that when you go to vote, that you bring some identification to show who you are.”

When faced with concerns about the fact some 52,000 people could be affected by the identification requirement, Poiliviere’s response was quick: “Well, that’s just false.”

And then there’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Canadians clearly believe that this is an appropriate thing that one would do. One has to produce identification for much less important functions in our society. I am sure, and I hope, that members on all sides of the Chamber will listen to Canadians and make sure that our elections are conducted with the utmost integrity.”

The Conservatives have tried to separate themselves from the U.S. experience by claiming the problems with the U.S. laws are that they require photo ID, while the Fair Elections Act does not.

Be that as it may, the courts may well have a nasty surprise for the Conservatives — the same kind the Supreme Court delivered on planned changes to the Senate, and the same kind U.S. Republican state legislators are facing.

Organizations: Conservatives, Wisconsin State Assembly, New York Times Supreme Court

Geographic location: United States, Wisconsin, Arkansas Canada U.S. Republican

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