MADISON (Reuters) - The Wisconsin state bar has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the state's controversial new voter identification law, citing concerns the measure could disenfranchise thousands of voters.
The chair of the bar's civil rights and liberties division, Sally Stix, said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this week that she was concerned the new rule could "suppress the votes of thousands of eligible Wisconsin voters."
She was especially concerned that the law could deter votes of the young, the poor and minorities without advancing the integrity of the elections process.
Stix cited a 2005 University of Wisconsin study that found 59 percent of Hispanic women and 55 percent of African-American men in the Milwaukee area lacked a valid state-issued photo ID.
While Wisconsin's motor vehicle department was supposed to issue no-cost IDs to help voters comply with the law, agency employees were not doing enough to make sure prospective voters get the free cards, she said.
Stix added that the documents required to get the free IDs, including certified birth certificates, were not free and said the law could disenfranchise voters unable to pay.
Wisconsin's voter ID law was part of a broader conservative program pushed through the GOP-controlled legislature earlier this year by Republican Governor Scott Walker, who was sworn in as governor in January.
That program, which has divided the state and led to a record number of recall elections over the summer, has also included curbs on the collective bargaining rights of public workers, deep budget cuts and an easing of restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons.
A spokesman for Walker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Advocates of voter ID laws, which have also been passed this year in Texas, Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Rhode Island, say the rules are needed to combat voter fraud.
But opponents say evidence of widespread fraud is nonexistent. The Advancement Project, a national civil rights legal group, has called the laws "the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century."
In her letter to Holder, Stix said the voter ID law, which will take effect next year in time for spring primaries and the fall general election, should be "subjected to the highest scrutiny."
That review, she said, should include a probe of the underlying legislative process "to determine whether or not there was any unlawful intent" by lawmakers who supported the change.
A spokeswoman at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. said the agency reviews all such requests but could not confirm that it had received Stix's letter.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher, editing by Cynthia Johnston)
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