By John Rondy
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Wisconsin on Tuesday over its law that will require voters to present official identification, claiming it is unconstitutional and will deprive citizens of their right to vote.
The federal complaint seeks to block the voter ID law, which takes effect on February 21, 2012 for Wisconsin's spring primary elections. It requires voters to present identification, such as a driver's license or a passport, to cast ballots in federal, state and local elections.
Republicans and Democrats are tangling over voter ID laws ahead of the November 2012 presidential and congressional elections, with Republicans saying they fight fraud and Democrats saying they disenfranchise the poor and city-dwellers who are less likely to have drivers' licenses or other ID.
"This lawsuit is the opening act in what will be a long struggle to undo the damage done to the right to vote by strict photo ID laws and other voter suppression measures," said Jon Sherman, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project.
The lawsuit is currently the only active federal challenge against a voter ID law, the ACLU said in a statement.
"Across the nation, legislators are robbing countless American citizens of their fundamental right to vote, and in the process, undermining the very legitimacy of our democracy," Sherman said.
A spokesman for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, called the law "common sense election reforms."
"Requiring photo identification to vote helps ensure the integrity of our elections -- we already require it to get a library card, cold medicine, and public assistance," said Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman.
Thirty-one states now require voters to show some form of ID before voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website. In 15 of those, including Wisconsin, the ID must include a photo of the voter.
ID laws have passed this year in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, predicted many veterans, minority voters and seniors who have been voting for decades will be turned away from the polls under the law's photo ID requirements.
The law will also hit homeless voters, many of whom do not have photo identification, said Heather Johnson, civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, also a plaintiff in the suit.
The Wisconsin law already has been challenged in the Dane County Circuit court by the League of Women Voters.
The ACLU's challenge came as the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, a state election watchdog, prepared a statewide advertising campaign with television and radio spots to educate residents on the new law and where they may obtain the proper photo identification for free.
The campaign also will use print and billboard ads, a texting program, a newly-created bringit.wisconsin.gov web site and Internet banner ads directing people to the web site.