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Federal judge strikes down Wisconsin Republicans’ lame-duck early voting rollbacks

A federal judge just chipped away at part of Wisconsin Republicans’ lame-duck power grab.

Voters Across The Country Head To The Polls For The Midterm Elections
Voters go to the polls to cast their midterm ballots.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

A federal judge struck down Wisconsin Republican’s law restricting early voting, blocking a key part of the GOP’s hastily pushed-through slate of lame-duck power grab bills that Gov. Scott Walker signed during his last days in office.

The push from Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature was designed to curb incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s power in office and potentially make it harder for Democrats to get elected in the future.

Among those changes included cuts to early voting times, limiting them to two weeks across the state, as well as requiring a two-year expiration date on student IDs being used for voter identification at the polls. The changes would hit hardest in Wisconsin’s most liberal cities like Milwaukee and Madison, which offer prolonged periods of early voting and have bigger student populations.

However, Judge James Peterson of the Western District of Wisconsin blocked those changes. The lawsuit brought by the liberal Wisconsin advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, as well as the National Redistricting Foundation, an organization run by former US Attorney General Eric Holder, argued that the changes were very similar to a previous law that the courts struck down in 2016 for “stifling votes for partisan gain.” Peterson agreed.

“This is not a close question: the three challenged provisions are clearly inconsistent with the injunctions that the court has issued in this case,” Peterson wrote in his decision. It’s not clear whether state Republicans will appeal the decision.

Wisconsin Democrats finally unseated Walker this year and won statewide races across the board; Democrat Josh Kaul also ousted Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. They campaigned on removing restrictions around welfare, protecting the Affordable Care Act, creating jobs, and preserving voting rights.

But the legislature will remain in Republican hands, and those lawmakers made clear they want to stop Democrats at all costs — even when it comes to voting.

Why early voting has become a voting rights issue

There was a clear shift with early voting when Barack Obama’s presidential campaign made it a priority in 2008. Targeting areas with higher Democratic voter potential — areas that also had higher populations of African-American voters — black churches used Sunday services to push people to the polls in what they called ”souls to the polls” initiatives.

It was wildly successful and a trend that continued in following elections. In cities like Milwaukee, the highest-participation early voting was in neighborhoods with high concentrations of black voters — the numbers surged from 5,000 early voters in 2000 to 36,500 in 2012.

There are clear reasons why voters like early voting reforms: There are long lines at the polls on Election Day, and early voting expands voters’ options, especially when it comes to missing work or school. But whether it is an effective way to get out the vote is still up for debate. There isn’t consistent research on how it impacts turnout, especially because it is implemented differently in every state — and in states like Wisconsin, it differs even among counties.

But it has become an increasingly popular trend. And there’s more consensus among election experts that turning back now would be more disruptive than just expanding the practice. With more and more people using early voting and liking it, rolling back early voting could do more harm to turnout.