Jul 30, 2016

Federal Judge Stops Republican Voter Obstruction Laws That 'Transformed Wisconsin’s Elections'

Sweeping voting rights win in Wisconsin in
One Wisconsin Institute v. Thomsen - Jenny Dye and Scott
Ross of One Wisconsin, a named co-plaintiff,
celebrate on Friday - Image: One Wisconsin

Judge rules Wisconsin Republicans sought partisan advantage by denying rights of Wisconsin voters, going so far as to discriminate on the basis of race in Milwaukee

Wisconsin Republicans' voter obstruction laws took a massive blast from United States District Judge James D. Peterson in One Wisconsin Institute v. Thomsen, (U.S. District Court of the Western District of Wisconsin (Case 15-cv-324) (Moritzlaw).

Peterson issued a sweeping order finding Republican-enacted, (and only Republican), election laws unconstitutional in a major win for voting rights in Wisconsin.

"Wisconsin’s voter ID law is part of 2011 Wis. Act 23, enacted the year after Wisconsin Republicans won the governorship and majorities in both houses of the legislature. Act 23 was the first of eight laws enacted over the next four years that transformed Wisconsin’s election system," writes Peterson. (p. 2).

Writes a noted election scholar, Rick Hasan, in his early and the first-published analysis of Peterson's 119-page opinion at Hasen's Election Law site:

Among other things, the court has ordered that expired but otherwise valid student id cards will be valid for voting. This is yet another win for voting rights activists in the past few weeks. The trial court enjoined the following WI laws:

  • most of the state-imposed limitations on the time and location for in-person absentee voting (although the state may set a uniform rule disallowing in-person absentee voting on the Monday before elections);
  • the requirement that ''dorm lists' to be used as proof of residence include citizenship information;
  • the 28-day durational residency requirement;
  • the prohibition on distributing absentee ballots by fax or email; and
  • the bar on using expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs.
This is a pretty sweeping opinion, which rejects many of the state’s arguments for its restrictive voting rules as pretexual, (misrepresentative), and really aimed at giving Republicans advantage in elections. The judge was particularly skeptical of measures which made it harder to vote in Milwaukee, with its large population of minority voters, and to a lesser extent, Madison, a liberal stronghold in the state.

The One Wisconsin decision was preceded by hours by another major voting rights win against Republicans in North Carolina, (Mother Jones). Another federal voting rights case in Wisconsin, Frank v. Walker, preceded One Wisconsin by days, (Mal Contends).

Both cases and One Wisconsin are major wins for voting rights and defeats for Republicans voter obstruction.

Concludes Peterson in One Wisconsin: "The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence. The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of  voter  ID  law  is  a  cure  worse  than  the  disease," (p. 4).

Republican attacks on Milwaukee early voting are discriminatory

The Court held the Republican-enacted law limiting Milwaukee's in-person absentee, (early voting), voting "intentionally discriminates on the basis of race," (p. 42). Writes Peterson:

Based on the evidence that plaintiffs have presented, the court finds that Wisconsin’s restrictions on the hours for in-person absentee voting have had a disparate effect on African Americans and Latinos. The court also finds that the legislature’s justification for these restrictions was meager, and that the intent was to secure partisan advantage. Finally, the court finds that the legislature specifically targeted large municipalities — Milwaukee in particular —intending to curtail minority voting. ...

[Republican] Defendants  contend that [Senators] Grothman and Fitzgerald were simply trying to achieve a measure of statewide uniformity because smaller  towns were unable to afford the extended hours that Milwaukee was offering. That explanation is hard to credit. ...

The acknowledged impetus for this law was the sight of long lines of Milwaukee citizens voting after hours. Yet instead of finding a way to provide  more  access to voters in small towns, the legislature responded by reining in voters in Milwaukee, the state’s most populous city, where two-thirds of its African American citizens live. ...

Combined, these findings lead the court to further find that the legislature passed the provisions restricting the hours for in-person absentee voting motivated in part by the intent to discriminate against voters on the basis of race. The legislature’s ultimate objective was political: Republicans sought to maintain control of the state government. But the methods that the legislature chose to achieve that result involved suppressing the votes of Milwaukee’s residents, who are disproportionately African American and Latino. The legislature did not act out of pure racial animus; rather, suppressing the votes of reliably Democratic minority voters in Milwaukee was a means to achieve its political objective. But that, too, constitutes race discrimination. Ketchum v. Byrne, 740 F.2d 1398, 1408 (7th Cir. 1984) (“We think there is little point for present purposes in distinguishing discrimination based on an ultimate objective of keeping certain incumbent whites in office from discrimination borne of pure racial animus.”), (pp. 42-45)

From One Wisconsin Institute:

MADISON, Wis. — Today, federal Judge James Peterson issued a ruling in the federal voting rights lawsuit One Wisconsin Institute Inc., et al v. Gerald Nichol, et al. One Wisconsin Institute and their co-plaintiffs have argued that a series of election law changes made by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led state legislature were meant to and have the effect of making it more difficult to vote in Wisconsin, especially for minorities, young people, and voters who tend to support Democratic candidates.

Republicans defending the challenged provisions have claimed they are necessary to protect against voter fraud, despite the fact that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate a voter. But behind closed doors, Wisconsin legislators discussed how the law would help Republicans by disenfranchising voters in Democratic areas.

Today’s ruling strikes down a number of the challenged provisions restricting voting rights of Wisconsinites, including restrictions on early voting hours and elimination of weekend voting; restrictions on use of student IDs for voting, and the 28-day residency requirement, among other provisions.

In regard to restrictions on hours for in-person absentee voting, the court specifically found that the law “intentionally discriminates on the basis of race…The legislature’s immediate goal was to achieve a partisan objective, but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.”

Scot Ross, executive director for One Wisconsin Institute, offered the following statements in response to today’s ruling:

“We argued Gov. Walker made it harder for Democrats to vote and easier for Republicans to cheat, and the judge agreed.

“The people behind the laws Judge Peterson has struck down sought to put their own partisan interests ahead of the rights of every American — regardless of race, party, or age – to cast their ballot as they so choose.

“Make no mistake about it, this is the strategy that has gone on for decades with Republicans. They want to do everything to create longer lines in urban areas and on college campuses, so that instead of accessing the franchise, voters simply go home because they can’t wait for hours and hours. This is their strategy, and there is not one piece of this attack on voters that can be seen as other than serving that end.”

“As the eyes of the nation are focused on the accomplishments and legacy of our nation’s first African American President and First Lady, Gov. Walker and his legislative allies refuse to accept the expanding diversity of our nation. Rather than make their public policy more inclusive, Republicans instead chose to rig the laws to rig the ballot box.

“Today’s decision is a huge win not only for the plaintiffs but also for democracy itself. We could not be more proud of this victory.”

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