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Judge Strikes Down Wisconsin’s Lame-Duck Election Changes That Limited Early Voting

A judge struck down last-minute voting restrictions and limitations enacted in Wisconsin by a Republican-controlled legislature during a lame-duck session in advance of a Democratic governor taking office. In his decision, federal judge James Peterson wrote, “This is not a close question.”

The legislation passed in late 2018 contained three restrictions, which then-governor Scott Walker signed into law: limiting early voting to two weeks prior to an election, requiring a two-year expiration date on student IDs used for identification at a polling place, and limiting the use of receipts as voter ID when people are working through obtaining a compliant ID without being able to obtain their birth certificate.

In 2016, Peterson issued injunctions in a previous attempt to impose similar restrictions. In the current decision, he wrote, “This is not a close question: the three challenged provisions are clearly inconsistent with the (2016) injunctions that the court has issued in this case.” An action brought by state attorneys remains pending in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over Peterson’s decision, and Peterson said in his decision he can enforce his own orders in the meantime.

Walker also ordered that temporary voting credentials and expired student IDs can serve as identification at the polls. The laws he said can’t go into effect only allowed temporary credentials to remain valid for 60 days and disallowed expired student IDs entirely.

Early voting during the 2018 Wisconsin election set a midterm record with 547,000 absentee ballots cast, over 200,000 more than in 2014.

The lawsuit was brought by One Wisconsin Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund, and the National Redistricting Foundation, which is led by Eric Holder, attorney general for much of Barack Obama’s presidency. Holder is now an advocate for voting-access expansion, which includes challenging laws that have a racial, political, or other bias against participation.

One Wisconsin’s director, Scot Ross, told the Journal Sentinel, “The Republican attacks on voting rights were unconstitutional when they were passed, they were unconstitutional when the judge struck them down and they are unconstitutional now.”

Each of the provisions enacted by the Wisconsin legislature have been found in various courts to target particular populations, which include students attending local colleges, who are thought to be more liberal, and whose participation can affect elections for local and state representative positions; older people of color and poor people, who are more likely than white people or more financially well off to lack a birth certificate; and others who lean Democrat and tend to use early voting.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a variety of bills during Republican Walker’s last days in office, including changing voting rules, and the governor signed them. These bills shifted some executive powers to the legislature and gave them authority to appoint some political positions.