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Explained: Federal judge overturns Wisconsin Republicans' limits on early voting, valid IDs

Explained: Federal judge overturns Wisconsin Republicans' limits on early voting, valid IDs

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Jamyia Jordan waits while her aunt Tiffany Suggs casts her vote at Leopold Elementary School in 2016. 

Opponents of a set of controversial laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans in an extraordinary session last month scored a victory in the first of several challenges to the measures. A federal judge struck down limits to early voting and some changes to photo ID requirements included in the legislation in a ruling issued Thursday. 

At least two more challenges to other provisions of the laws are pending and it's not yet known whether the voting decision will be appealed.

What changes did the extraordinary session laws make to voting?

Under one of three laws passed during the extraordinary session, the time frame during which municipalities could conduct early voting was limited to "no earlier than 14 days preceding the election and no later than the Sunday preceding the election." 

Supporters of the change argued it would set a standard that would apply equally throughout the state, so larger cities with more resources couldn't offer more early voting hours than smaller, rural communities. Opponents countered that larger cities should be able to offer more hours to account for their larger populations. Both sides framed it as an issue of fairness.

The lame-duck law also prevented people from using an expired student ID to vote and prevented voters from using a temporary voter ID for more than 60 days. 

Who challenged those changes? 

One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin asked U.S. District Judge James Peterson to halt those provisions of the extraordinary session laws. The liberal groups filed the challenge hours after then-Gov. Scott Walker signed the lame-duck bills into law

The National Redistricting Foundation, an offshoot of the Eric Holder-led National Democratic Redistricting Committee, supported the challenge.

What was the basis of the challenge?

One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin successfully challenged similar restrictions in 2016.

Peterson ruled at the time that laws that limited in-person absentee voting to one location, limited early voting hours and eliminated weekend voting were unconstitutional. A 2013 law limiting hours for in-person absentee voting "intentionally discriminates on the basis of race," Peterson wrote in the 2016 decision.

In that decision, Peterson also ruled that expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs could be used to vote, and that temporary IDs issued by the state for voting must be valid for 180 days. 

How did Peterson decide the most recent challenge?

About a month after the challenge was filed, Peterson ruled that the three provisions in question could not be enforced.

"This is not a close question: the three challenged provisions are clearly inconsistent with the injunctions that the court has issued in this case," he wrote.

Although the defendants in the case — at the time represented by now-former Attorney General Brad Schimel — argued it was not their intent to violate Peterson's original ruling, the judge found that it did not matter why the Legislature enacted the law, only that it violated the court's decision.

What happens next?

Attorney General Josh Kaul was sworn in on Jan. 7. Before his campaign, he represented One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin in the 2016 lawsuit. Because of that, he is walled off from the case. 

Deputy Attorney General Eric Wilson is overseeing the case and any decisions on whether appeal Peterson's ruling, said DOJ spokeswoman Gillian Drummond. 

The original case is on appeal before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.