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Judges Buoy WI Redistricting, Voter ID Claims

MADISON, Wis. (CN) - Recent rulings in a Wisconsin gerrymandering case and a challenge to the Badger State's voter ID law spell mostly bad news for Republican initiatives.

A three-judge panel in Federal Court ruled that, despite facing "significant challenges in prevailing on their claims," plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing Wisconsin lawmakers of "one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in American history" may continue.

Judge Barbara Crabb in the Western Wisconsin District Court wrote the Dec. 17 opinion on behalf of herself, Judge Kenneth Ripple and Judge William Griesbach, ruling that 12 Democratic voters' claims had merit.

The lawsuit, which was originally filed against members of the recently-dismantled non-partisan elections board, alleged Republicans met in secret to create a redistricting plan giving them an unfair advantage, which they then rushed through the Wisconsin Legislature.

"This kind of partisan gerrymandering is both unconstitutional and profoundly undemocratic," the complaint states.

Not only is the plan unconstitutional, but its efficiency gap - the number of so-called "wasted votes" divided by total votes - is unnecessary, the voters claim. Wasted votes are those cast beyond what's needed for a party to win as well as those cast for the losing candidate, according to the lawsuit.

"The demonstration plan proves that the current plan's extreme pro-Republican tilt cannot be blamed on either an effort to comply with legitimate redistricting criteria or Wisconsin's underlying political geography," the complaint states. "Both of those factors were perfectly compatible with a neutral map."

A judge in a prior lawsuit called claims the current plan was not influenced by partisan politics "almost laughable," according to the complaint.

In her opinion, Crabb rejected the state's argument that the controversy is not suited to court resolution, and found that the voters proved their standing to sue.

"Our conclusion that plaintiffs have adequately alleged standing is supported by defendants' failure to cite any cases in which a court found in a partisan gerrymandering case that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring a statewide challenge," Crabb wrote, clarifying that the state can bring a standing challenge later in a summary judgment context.

The voters also proved discriminatory intent and effect against Democratic voters sufficiently for the case to continue on its merits, Crabb ruled.

Another lawsuit against the now-defunct Government Accountability Board, this one challenging the state's voter identification law, may proceed in part, Judge James Peterson ruled.

"This lawsuit concerns the most fundamental of rights guaranteed citizens in our representative democracy - the right to vote," lead plaintiff One Wisconsin Institute says in its complaint. "That right has been under attack in Wisconsin since Republicans gained control of the governor's office and both houses of the State Legislature in the 2010 election."

The subject laws began with Act 23, which imposed the voter ID requirement in addition to reducing the early voting period from 30 to 12 days, increasing the state-residency requirement from 10 to 28 days and eliminating the Government Accountability Board's authority to appoint statewide registration deputies, according to the complaint.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously denied review of a challenge to the voter ID requirement after a tumultuous lead-up to the fall 2014 election. A Milwaukee judge in a separate case recently declined to expand the state's law to include more types of identification.

Peterson granted dismissal on two of four counts, ruling that the plaintiffs had conceded their claims that the voter ID law violates the Constitution and Voting Rights Act are invalid pursuant to a decision in an earlier case.

The judge expressed reluctance in upholding the Frank v. Walker decision, saying he is "skeptical" as to whether voter ID laws have the effect their proponents claim.

"Whether voter ID laws promote well-grounded confidence in the electoral process is a fact that should be verified, even if I am constrained here to accept it as an established 'legislative fact,'" he wrote in the Dec. 17 ruling.

But One Wisconsin Institute and co-plaintiffs proved there is no rational basis to exclude "out-of-state, expired, or technical college IDs" from the list of approved identification because residency must be proved separately and has no bearing on photo identification, Peterson ruled.

Allegations of "partisan fencing" - laws passed to suppress the effectiveness of Democratic voters - also warrant a move forward in the court system, Peterson continues, as they "plausibly suggest" civil rights violations.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago School of Law, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the redistricting lawsuit, said an appeal is unlikely at this stage, so the Democratic voters will go "full speed ahead" into discovery.

The ruling completely in the plaintiff's favor was the first of its kind "in a generation," as most gerrymandering lawsuits fail at the motion to dismiss stage, Stephanopoulos added.

Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesperson Anne Schwartz said they are reviewing the redistricting decision.

In a statement, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel praised the portions of Peterson's decision upholding the voter ID law.

"Today, the district court reaffirmed what the Seventh Circuit already told us in Frank v. Walker: Wisconsin's voter ID law is consistent with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act," Schimel said. "I look forward to this commonsense law being enforced as we move toward the 2016 election."

Bobbie Wilson with San Francisco-based Perkins Coie LLP, who represents the plaintiffs in the voter ID lawsuit, did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment.

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