A federal judge said Thursday that opponents of more than a dozen new Wisconsin election laws had made a “pretty decent case” that Republicans approved them to secure a partisan advantage, but added he isn’t convinced the measures actually had a dramatic effect.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson’s comments came in closing arguments of a lawsuit challenging the laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker since 2011. Peterson promised to rule by the end of July but has said that will be too late to affect the Aug. 9 primary for the field of candidates running for dozens of state and federal races that will be narrowed before the Nov. 8 general election.
An attorney for two liberal groups challenging the laws, including the requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls, argued that they should be found unconstitutional and stopped from being enforced. But a state Department of Justice attorney said there was no evidence to support a wholesale undoing of the laws.
The laws being challenged include provisions of the voter ID requirement, particularly the process used to grant free IDs to people who don’t have the required documentation, limitations on early voting times and places and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.
The judge said he didn’t “see anything powerful in either way” about what effect the laws have had on turnout.
“I don’t see anything really compelling showing the voter ID law or any of the other changes had a powerful impact on any of the elections,” Peterson said.
He referenced comments from Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, made in an interview in April, that he thought the voter ID law would help Republicans in the November election. Peterson said he didn’t think the evidence showed it would help Republicans significantly, or that it would hurt Democrats as much as was argued.
The plaintiffs argue that the laws discriminate against the poor, racial minorities and younger voters who are more inclined to vote Democratic. The state Department of Justice counters that they have not suppressed turnout and the state works hard to ensure everyone who needs a free ID to vote gets one.
Attorney Bruce Van Spiva argued that if the judge finds any parts of the laws are discriminatory, he must rule the entire laws unconstitutional and block enforcement. He said the evidence showed Republicans were motivated to pass the laws to suppress Democratic turnout and there was no need to make the changes.
He cited testimony of Todd Allbaugh, who was chief of staff to then state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican. Allbaugh testified that Republican senators said in a closed-door meeting discussing the voter ID law that it was needed to improve the GOP’s chances of winning elections by reducing turnout in urban areas and college campuses.
But the judge raised questions about whether Allbaugh’s testimony could be trusted, given that he left the Republican Party partly out of disgust over passage of the voter ID law.
Some of the law changes being challenged include: reducing early voting from 30 days before an election to 12 days; limiting the hours it can take place and restricting early voting to one location per municipality; eliminating straight ticket voting; doing away with requiring special election deputies be assigned at high schools; and prohibiting local governments from requiring landlords to distribute voter-registration forms to new tenants.