MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A federal judge on Friday threw out as unconstitutional a host of Wisconsin election laws passed in recent years, saying they unfairly benefited Republicans who had enacted them and made it more difficult for Democrats to vote.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson’s ruling keeps in place the state’s voter identification law, unlike recent rulings in North Carolina and Texas, but he ordered broad changes. The sweeping ruling was a defeat for Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature. It will not affect Wisconsin’s upcoming Aug 9 primary, but will take effect for the Nov. 8 presidential election unless overturned on appeal.
A spokesman for the state Department of Justice, which defended the laws, said the agency plans to appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though attorneys were still reviewing the 120-page decision Friday evening. Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson said the ruling - issued at 5 p.m. Friday - was still being reviewed and the governor would comment later.
Peterson ordered the state to quickly issue credentials valid for voting to anyone trying to obtain a free photo ID for voting but lack the underlying documents such as birth certificates to obtain one. He called the state’s current process for getting free IDs to people who lack such documents “a wretched failure” because it has left a number of overwhelmingly black and Hispanic citizens unable to obtain IDs.
Peterson also struck down restrictions limiting municipalities to one location for in-person absentee voting and limiting in-person early voting to weekdays, allowing municipalities to hold weekend early voting sessions. He said imposing weekday limitations intentionally discriminates against Democratic-leaning blacks in Milwaukee.
He also struck down an increase in residency requirements from 10 to 28 days, a prohibition on using expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs to vote and a prohibition on distributing absentee ballots by fax or email.
“Wisconsin has the authority to regulate its elections to preserve their integrity, and a voter ID requirement can be part of a well-conceived election system,” Peterson wrote. “But … parts of Wisconsin’s election regime fail to comply with the constitutional requirement that its elections remain fair and equally open to all qualified electors.”
The ruling came just hours after a federal appeals court blocked a North Carolina law that required voters to produce photo identification and included other provisions disproportionately affecting black voters. Judges in the Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said the law was enacted “with discriminatory intent.”
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities and must be weakened before the November elections. And just last week, a federal judge in Milwaukee blew a hole in Wisconsin’s voter ID law, saying people having trouble getting the required ID can sign an affidavit to vote in the Nob. 8 election.
The two liberal groups who brought the lawsuit decided Friday - One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund Inc. - argued the restrictions were unconstitutional and discriminate against the poor, racial minorities and younger voters who are more inclined to vote Democratic. They presented evidence at trial attempting to show that Republicans were motivated to pass the laws to suppress Democratic turnout.
Defense attorneys countered that the laws, all passed since Walker and Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2011, have not suppressed turnout and that the state works hard to ensure everyone who needs a free ID to vote gets one.
“This is a liberal judge’s attempt to undermine our elections less than four months out,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Rochester Repubican, said in a statement. “It’s also an obvious attempt to usurp the power of the legislature. I’m confident that the laws will be reinstated upon appeal. The measures did not disenfranchise voters; they protected the integrity of our elections and people’s right to vote.”
Scot Ross, director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, an arm of One Wisconsin Institute, cheered the ruling.
“We argued Gov. Walker made it harder for Democrats to vote and easier for Republicans to cheat, and the judge agreed,” Ross said.
Marc Elias, an attorney representing both liberal groups, said he was thrilled with the decision. His law firm has successfully challenged similar voting restrictions across the country.
He said the rulings are steps toward correcting “voting restriction laws put in place by Republican legislators.” There’s been a concerted effort by Republicans nationwide since President Barack Obama took place to peel back voting rights and laws improving access to the polls that had been in place since 1965, he said.
“It is a great day for Wisconsin voters and those who care about protecting the right to vote,” he said.
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