Federal appeals court limits early voting, prohibits sending absentee ballots by mail

    Madison voting
    The Wisconsin Capitol on spring election day, April 7, 2020. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    More than three years after taking the case, a panel of federal judges issued a ruling Monday that reinstated limits on the availability of in-person absentee voting and a rule that requires residents to live in Wisconsin at least a month before voting. 

    The ruling also prohibits sending absentee ballots by email or fax and overturned an earlier ruling allowing people who struggle to obtain photo ID to use an affidavit in place of the actual photo ID card. The ruling upheld a decision allowing Wisconsin college students to use expired university IDs to vote and prevents the state from requiring colleges to provide citizenship information about dorm residents who try to vote. 

    The unanimous decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, largely overturned previous decisions by Federal district court Judges James Peterson and Lynn Adelman.

    Peterson had struck down some of Wisconsin’s election laws in 2016 following a lawsuit from liberal groups One Wisconsin Now and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund. Peterson said Wisconsin’s laws were discriminatory against minority voters. The decision from the court of appeals said that although the laws were designed to aid the Republican Party, they are not  discriminatory just because they make it harder to vote for minority voters who tend to vote for  Democrats. 

    “The parties agree, and the district judge found, that race and politics are correlated: black voters are likely to prefer Democratic candidates. Yet the record does not show that the legislators made any of the changes because Democratic voters are more likely to be black (or because black voters are more likely to support Democrats). The changes were made because of politics,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote. 

    The three judges on the panel, Easterbrook, Michael Kanne and Diane Sykes, were appointed by Republican presidents. 

    In the largest section of the decision, a rule limiting in-person absentee voting to 14 days before the election was reinstated by the appeals court. Also, residents voting in any election other than for President and Vice President will need to have lived in the state for at least 28 days.

    While this case was initially brought in 2016, the ruling comes just months before the 2020 presidential election that will take place as the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the voting challenges that it brings. 

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    Democrats said the decision was an outrage, while Republicans celebrated. 

    “The judges take the Supreme Court’s redistricting decision and use it to argue that, essentially, lawmakers can change any election law for purposes of partisan advantage, as long as they’re not explicitly talking about racial (or other barred) discrimination while they do it,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Ben Wikler said on Twitter. “The truth is that because one party has so relentlessly weaponized racism, voting is now highly predicted by race — and so it’s possible to suppress the vote of African-Americans under the guise of suppressing Democrats. This opens the door to making that legal.” 

    Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the decision made the state’s elections more fair. 

    “This is a win for fair elections,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The ruling puts municipalities in every corner of Wisconsin closer to equal footing when it comes to early in-person voting. I applaud the 7th Circuit on its decision and look forward to moving on with this Fall’s elections.”

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.