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Wisconsin’s early voting limit challenged in federal court (UPDATE)

By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The fight over restricting early voting in Wisconsin returned to federal court on Monday, three days after Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a new limit passed during a lame-duck legislative session.

A coalition of liberal groups, with the support of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat, asked a federal judge to block the early voting restrictions. The same judge in 2016 struck down a similar two-week early voting limitation after finding it unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the groups argued that Republicans had called the lame-duck session “as part of a partisan attempt to retain and regain power” and the early voting limitation was “in direct violation” of the court’s 2016 order.

Holder, in a statement, said Walker and Republicans showed a “blatant disregard for a previous court ruling and refusal to listen to the will of the people.” He called it “another shameful mark on the legacy of Scott Walker and his allies in the Legislature.”

Walker signed the new limits into law on Friday, just over three weeks before he would be replaced by Gov.-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat who defeated him in November. Other bills Walker signed that passed during the lame-duck session would limit the powers of Evers and the incoming attorney general, also a Democrat.

In Michigan, Republican legislators also are weighing legislation resembling Wisconsin bills that would strip or dilute the authority of incoming elected Democrats. The push in both states mirrors tactics employed by North Carolina Republicans in 2016.

Wisconsin Democrats won election to every statewide office that was on the ballot in November, defeating Walker and other officeholders who represent the entire state. Republicans, however, maintained majority control of the Legislature and quickly convened their lame-duck session to pass bills Walker could sign before he leaves office on Jan. 7.

In the November election, the overwhelmingly Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee allowed for voting six weeks before the election, far longer than in smaller and more conservative places throughout Wisconsin. In total, more than 565,000 people voted early, the most in any midterm election in Wisconsin history.

Walker and Republicans who pushed for the two-week limit said the time frame for voting early should be uniform throughout the state, not left up for every local government to set on its own. Walker argued it’s a matter of fairness. Local officials can still decide when within any two-week period before an election to allow early voting.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson, in striking down the two-week early voting limit in 2016, said then that the change was designed by the Republicans who passed it to give them a partisan advantage and limit the ability of black and Hispanic residents of Wisconsin’s largest cities to vote.

Peterson rejected the fairness argument in 2016, saying then that “the purported consistency is illusory.” Rather than working to allow more early voting in smaller places, the state restricted it in large ones, he wrote in 2016.

The same groups that sued in 2016 — One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund — went back to court on Monday. Holder’s group, the National Redistricting Foundation, is not a part of the lawsuit but has expressed support for it.

The groups asked the court to act to strike down the early-voting change before the next statewide general election on April 2.

They also asked the court to strike down two other provisions related to Wisconsin’s voter ID law that were included in the lame-duck bills but struck down by Peterson in 2016.

One would prevent university and college IDs to be used for voting if they are expired. Another would reduce the time period — taking it down from 180 days to 60 days — that receipts given to people who are seeking a free ID from the state could be used as a valid ID to vote.

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