Federal court rules on state elections laws

By Benjamin Yount

Center Square News Service

CHICAGO - Election Day in November will look a little different in Wisconsin because of a ruling by a federal appeals court on Monday, June 29..

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals late Monday issued a ruling in a years-old challenge to Wisconsin's 2016 election reform law. The court sided with the Republicans who wrote the law.

The surprising decision changes the time frame for early voting, reaffirms citizenship rules for Wisconsin voters, and makes clear how ballots can be sent to voters.

The most significant part of the court's ruling limits the amount of time that Wisconsin election clerks can offer early voting.

The 2016 law includes a two-week window for early voting. Opponents of the law said that limited their access to the ballot. The court disagreed.

"We do not see a substantive problem with days and hours limitations," the court wrote. "They leave all voters with equal opportunities to participate. Early voting is not a fundamental right in itself; it is but one aspect of a state’s election system. As we have stressed, Wisconsin’s system as a whole is accommodating. So long as a state treats all voters equally, §2 does not limit the state’s control of details such as hours for early voting."

Up until now, clerks and Madison and Milwaukee allowed for weeks of early voting while clerks in other counties did not.

The appeals court also determined people need to live in Wisconsin before they can vote in Wisconsin.

"Wisconsin’s 28-day window is close to the national norm and less than the 30-day window that is subject to a safe harbor for federal elections. It is less than the 50-day window that the Supreme Court held to be constitutional," the ruling states. "Plaintiffs have not identified any feature of Wisconsin’s law that makes a 28-day window more onerous."

The court also upheld Wisconsin's Voter ID law.

"Proof of residence helps assign voters to their proper districts and is valid for that reason alone," the judges added.

The Appeals Court also ruled on how Wisconsin can send ballots to voters. Voters will no longer be able to get a ballot via email or fax.

"As we have emphasized, all parts of the electoral code must be considered, and travelers have many ways to vote in Wisconsin. Some travelers’ potential inconvenience does not permit a court to override the state’s judgment that other interests predominate" the judge wrote.

"Wisconsin wants to control errors arising from the fact that faxed or emailed ballots cannot be counted by machine and to protect the secrecy of the ballot."

The court explained further: "Wisconsin has lots of rules that make voting easier. It extends the privilege of voting by absentee ballot to otherwise qualified electors who, for any reason, are unable or unwilling to appear at the polls," the ruling states.

The one victory that liberal groups in Wisconsin celebrate is the continued use of student IDs and voter IDs, even if those IDs have expired.

"A student ID card, alone among the sorts of photo ID that Wisconsin accepts, is not suffcient for voting unless the student also shows proof of current enrollment. No other category of acceptable identification – including for drivers, military members, passport holders, or veterans – depends on ongoing affliation of any sort" the ruling reads.

"The statute sets students apart in this respect, and the state has not tried to justify this distinction. We take the omission as a concession that it lacks a rational basis."

The ruling on early voting, absentee ballots, and voter ID could become more contentious as Election Day approaches.

Wisconsin is pushing for a massive early and absentee voting turnout this November.

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