By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein
Finding that Republican lawmakers had discriminated against minorities, a federal judge Friday struck down parts of Wisconsin's voter ID law, limits on early voting and prohibitions on allowing people to vote early at multiple sites.
With the presidential election less than four months away, GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel said he plans to appeal the sweeping decision by U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson.
Peterson also turned back other election laws Republicans have put in place in recent years.
"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," U.S. District Judge James Peterson wrote.
"To put it bluntly, Wisconsin's strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease."
The ruling came the same day a federal appeals court struck down numerous voting laws in North Carolina and a week after a different appeals court ruled a photo ID law in Texas violates voters' rights. Last week, a federal judge in Milwaukee determined voters in November could cast ballots without showing ID if they submitted statements at polling places saying they could not easily get a state-issued ID card.
Friday's 119-page decision in Madison is broader than the Milwaukee ruling and resets the rules for voting less than four months before the presidential election.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett praised the ruling, saying that "without a question" the city would take advantage of it to help more of its citizens vote.
"Gov. (Scott) Walker and the Legislature wanted to create a bottleneck in the city of Milwaukee to make it more difficult for people to vote," Barrett said.
The decision deals with a swath of election laws that have been modified in recent years by Walker and Republican lawmakers. Peterson, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, concluded many of them violate the First Amendment right to free speech, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law and the Fifteenth Amendment protection of the right to vote.
He struck down:
--Limits on early voting Republicans have put in place in recent years. GOP lawmakers restricted early voting to weekdays during the two full weeks before elections, thus eliminating weekend voting that was popular in Milwaukee and other urban areas.
--A requirement that cities can have only one place for early voting. Critics have said large cities such as Milwaukee should be able to have multiple voting sites because not everyone can get downtown easily.
--A requirement that people must live in their voting ward 28 days before an election. Previously, people had to live in a ward for 10 days before an election.
--The system the state uses to determine if people with the most difficulty getting IDs should be provided identification for voting. He ruled anyone in that system must immediately be granted an ID for voting within 30 days.
--Part of the voter ID law allows people to use certain student IDs to vote, but those IDs cannot be expired. Peterson found that aspect of the law is unconstitutional, ruling that expired student IDs can be used at the polls -- just as expired driver's licenses can be used for voting.
--A requirement that dorm lists provided to poll workers include citizen information. Universities provide the lists of those living in dorms to poll workers so they have an easy way to check whether students are voting in the right wards; lawmakers put in a requirement that those lists show whether the students are U.S. citizens.
--A prohibition on providing voters with absentee ballots by email or fax is unconstitutional, the judge ruled.
The ruling will not change any of the rules for the Aug. 9 primary. But -- if kept in place -- it will reshape how the Nov. 8 general election is run. Further rulings higher courts could change that, however.
The law limiting early voting "intentionally discriminates on the basis of race," Peterson wrote. "I reach this conclusion because I am persuaded that this law was specifically targeted to curtail voting in Milwaukee without any other legitimate purpose.
"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."
The ruling drew praise from the executive director of One Wisconsin Institute, one of the liberal groups that brought the lawsuit.
"As the eyes of the nation are focused on the accomplishments and legacy of our nation's first African-American president and first lady, Governor Walker and his legislative allies refuse to accept the expanding diversity of our nation," Scot Ross said in a statement. "Republicans instead chose to rig the laws to rig the ballot box."
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) dismissed the ruling, saying that Peterson overstepped his authority.
"Another in a long line of judicial overreaches that usurp states' rights. One more example of why (the U.S. Supreme Court) is critical," Steineke tweeted.
A key part of the case dealt with the system the state has used to provide IDs to people who are qualified to vote but who have trouble getting them because they don't have birth certificates or have errors on them. Walker made changes to that system on the eve of the May trial before Peterson, but for years people without birth certificates have had to go through a lengthy process to try to get IDs, and even then many of them failed to get them even though they were considered eligible voters.
Those who have had the most difficulty getting IDs are overwhelmingly minorities, and Peterson called the system created for them a "wretched failure."
Most people have been able to get free IDs from the state with little trouble after a single visit to the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
The decision comes at a time when voting rights cases are making their way through the courts.
Peterson issued his decision just hours after a federal appeals court struck down a similar requirement in North Carolina that voters there show ID at the polls. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., also reinstated one more week of early voting in North Carolina, concluding that lawmakers had sought to discriminate against certain voters in passing those measures.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law in 2008 and since then such laws have flourished around the country. Many of those states, including Wisconsin, have passed laws that are more stringent than Indiana's, sparking a new wave of litigation.
Wisconsin's voter ID law was blocked for years by court orders, but revived last year after rulings by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even after those decisions, one of the cases remained alive as those opposed to the voter ID law argued some people needed another method of voting because they had great difficulty in getting IDs because they lacked birth certificates or had errors on them.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman embraced those arguments last week and ruled that in the Nov. 8 election voters who don't have IDs can cast ballots if they submit affidavits at the polls saying they can't easily get IDs.
A former Democratic state senator, Adelman was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton.
That decision has been appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which has shown it is equally divided when it comes to Wisconsin's voter ID law. The same court will hear an appeal of Peterson's decision.
A panel of three 7th Circuit judges upheld the voter ID law in 2014. The full court then split 5-5 on whether the law should be overturned, leaving the earlier ruling in place.
Bruce Vielmetti of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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