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Early Voting

Christine Knorr of Madison cast her ballot Sept. 26, the first day of in-person early voting, at the Madison Central Library. Last week a federal judge shot down legislation that Republicans passed after the Nov. 6 election to limit early voting. 

December’s lame-duck power grab by Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald and Scott Walker was an assault on Wisconsin values and the rule of law. It demanded the legal challenges that have been mounted against it. And it should come as no surprise that these challenges are beginning to yield victories.

These victories will not come as quickly as the voters who chose change on Nov. 6 would like. And they may not always be as sweeping as the abuses by the defeated governor and his Republican allies in the state Legislature merit. But is it heartening that one of their crudest schemes to thwart the will of the people has already been undone.

The power grab by Walker, Assembly Speaker Vos and Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald has two major components.

One component involved Republican strategies to limit the authority of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, both of whom have since taken office. The other component sought to prevent a repeat of the sort of high-turnout election that defeated Walker and every other statewide Republican candidate in 2018.

At the heart of the latter move were rule changes designed to limit in-person early voting in Wisconsin. Walker and the Republican-controlled state Assembly and Senate imposed a two-week cap on early voting, along with related restrictions. They also limited the types of identification students could use to cast ballots.

Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled that the lame-duck legislation that was signed in December by Walker — who is widely believed to be plotting a political comeback — had violated injunctions issued by Peterson in 2016 against previous GOP moves to limit early voting.

Lawyers for the Republicans — who because of extreme gerrymandering still control the Legislature — had argued that Peterson’s 2016 injunction no longer applied because they had enacted new and slightly different legislation. The judge rejected that claim, noting, “The scope of the injunction relates to conduct that the court concluded was unlawful; the particular statutory provisions at issue are not important.”

Note Peterson’s language.

“This is not a close question,” wrote the jurist, who concluded that “the three challenged provisions are clearly inconsistent with the injunctions that the court has issued in this case.”

That was a serious smack-down for Walker, Vos, and Fitzgerald, as was noted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“Today’s court ruling is a victory for the citizens of Wisconsin and a rebuke to their defeated former governor and his cronies in the state Legislature,” said Holder, whose National Redistricting Foundation provided support for the challenge to the new law that was brought by the One Wisconsin Institute and the Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund. “Every voter in the state should be asking one question: Why are Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature so afraid of the people they claim they want to represent? Though we are heartened by this decision we will continue to fight any further efforts designed to undermine democracy in Wisconsin or any other part of our nation.”

In a broader sense, the federal judge’s ruling was a rebuke to all the political charlatans who seek to gain electoral advantages by gaming the rules against high-turnout elections. As Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund executive director Robert Kraig explained, “This ruling is a major victory in the battle to protect and expand voting rights in Wisconsin. It is our hope that the constant political attempts to erect artificial barriers to voting will become a thing of the past, so we can work together to assure that everyone in Wisconsin has unfettered access to the ballot box.”

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While other elements of their lame-duck legislation remain on the books, as of now Peterson’s ruling lends credence to complaints by Evers, Kaul, good-government groups, newspaper editorial boards, and even some Republicans that Walker, Vos and Fitzgerald went too far in their post-election power grab.

One Wisconsin Institute executive director Scot Ross summed things up well when he said: “Robin Vos and the Republicans have been told by the federal court in no uncertain terms that they are not above the law.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times