Seventh Circuit Rules on Bevy of Wisconsin Election Laws, Limits Early Voting Period

Voters cast their ballots in Kieler, Wisconsin, in 2018. (Nicki Kohl/Telegraph Herald via AP)

CHICAGO (CN) — A Seventh Circuit panel issued a long-awaited decision Monday related to a raft of sweeping lawsuits challenging Wisconsin voting rules, including those affecting voter IDs, early voting procedures and several other election policies.

The ruling by a panel of three judges arrived more than three years after arguments took place for a number of consolidated lawsuits, some touching on fights over state election laws that have been simmering for almost a decade.

The decision — penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook — was largely a win for Wisconsin conservatives who have long fought to tighten election rules, but contained a few concessions for liberals who have spent years trying to loosen the same rules. 

In the broadest of the underlying suits affected by Monday’s decision, a Madison federal judge struck down a number of voting rules challenged by liberal nonprofit One Wisconsin Now as racially discriminatory.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson, a Barack Obama appointee, opined in his 2016 ruling that certain rules, such as one limiting hours and days available for early absentee voting, were specifically designed by Republican lawmakers to disenfranchise black voters in order to help GOP candidates win elections.

Easterbrook, a Ronald Reagan appointee, did not buy Peterson’s argument, finding  that there is no evidence to support the notion that Republican legislators intentionally targeted black voters for disenfranchisement but that the rules were instead politically motivated in a partisan sense, which is the legislators’ prerogative.

“This record does not support a conclusion that the legislators who voted for the contested statutes cared about race; they cared about voters’ political preferences,” Easterbrook wrote.

The judge did not find that the challenged limits on the time of day and number of days allotted for early voting violated either the First Amendment or the Voting Rights Act since, ultimately, “they leave all voters with equal opportunities to participate.”

“Early voting is not a fundamental right in itself,” Easterbrook said. “It is but one aspect of a state’s election system,” which treats all voters the same on paper.

In early 2019, Peterson also nixed a statewide two-week limit on early voting installed by wide-ranging lame-duck laws passed by the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature, which were manufactured to limit the powers of Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats. Monday’s decision puts that two-week limit back in place.

Although the appeals court deviated from Peterson’s rationale over a rule limiting student IDs for voting, it affirmed his finding that college dorm lists cannot be required to include citizenship information since federal law already prohibits colleges from releasing personally identifiable information, including citizenship status.

The appeals court also found a requirement that voters reside in Wisconsin for 28 days prior to an election is constitutional since the plaintiffs did not prove that the rule is any more onerous than similar rules, including Arizona’s 50-day residency requirement.

Many of the panel’s findings in Monday’s decision rest on the idea that “Wisconsin has lots of rules that make voting easier,” with the court concluding that, overall, the Badger State’s election rules are more accommodating than other states.

Easterbrook also did not buy the district court’s objection to a rule barring election officials from sending absentee ballots via fax or email to certain voters who, for one reason or another, find themselves out of state when it comes time to acquire their ballot.

Even if some voters are inconvenienced by the rule, Easterbrook said that “some travelers potential inconvenience does not permit a court to override the state’s judgment that other interests predominate” when considering Wisconsin’s desires “to control errors arising from the fact that faxed or emailed ballots cannot be counted by machine and to protect the secrecy of the ballot.”

Touching further on Wisconsin rules limiting student IDs for voting, which has long been one of the marquee fights over the state’s election laws, Easterbrook disagreed with the district court’s position that the rules should not limit the use of expired student IDs, opining that “there’s nothing wrong with a requirement that IDs be current.”

However, Easterbrook still found a different problem with an aspect of the student ID rules that requires students to also show proof of current enrollment when using the ID to vote.

“No other category of acceptable identification — including for drivers, military members, passport holders, or veterans—depends on ongoing affiliation of any sort,” Easterbrook said. 

“The statute sets students apart in this respect, and the state has not tried to justify this distinction,” an omission Easterbrook took as “a concession that it lacks a rational basis.”

The panel’s decision remanded certain matters back to the district court for further proceedings, including one designating a process by which voters who have trouble getting together essential documents needed to vote can petition the state for an exception to rules requiring those identifying credentials.

Easterbrook was joined in his decision Monday by U.S. Circuit Judges Michael Kanne and Diane Sykes, appointed by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively.

Monday’s ruling calls for the remaining disputes to be remanded to a single judge for further proceedings, although it was not clear which judge or which district court would handle those proceedings.

The decision is the latest shoe to drop in a ratcheting brawl over Wisconsin’s election laws a little more than four months ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Multiple lawsuits over procedures for the November election — some stemming from Wisconsin’s controversial April primary — are at play in a Wisconsin federal court. A status conference on Monday laid out a briefing schedule through July for those suits, and the parties will hold an evidentiary hearing on Aug. 5.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has also yet to rule on whether to order the purge of roughly 130,000 voters who may have moved from the state’s voter rolls.

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