7th Circuit Court of Appeals: Wisconsin voters have 2 weeks to cast absentee ballots

CHICAGO -- A federal appeals court panel upheld a host of Republican-authored voting restrictions in Wisconsin on Monday, June 29, handing conservatives a significant win just months before residents in the battleground state cast their ballots for president.

The three-judge panel —all Republican appointees— found that the state can restrict early voting hours and restored a requirement that people must live in a district for 28 days, not 10, before they can vote. The panel also said emailing and faxing absentee ballots is unconstitutional.

Judge Frank Easterbrook, who wrote the opinion, noted that even with the rules, Wisconsin voters enjoy more ways to register and cast their ballots than people in other states. He also said Wisconsin sees higher turnout than other states.

“Wisconsin has lots of rules that make voting easier,” Easterbrook wrote. “These facts matter when assessing challenges to a handful of rules that make voting harder.”

The state's photo ID requirement for voters wasn't in question, although the panel did find that expired student IDs are acceptable at the polls, keeping intact an option that allows people to vote without an ID if they show an affidavit saying they tried to obtain one.

Still, Democrats railed against the decision, calling it an “assault on our democracy.”

“As Trump and his team become increasingly nervous for November, a Republican-controlled court just made another egregious assault on voting rights in Wisconsin," state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said. “Trump knows his path to victory involves suppressing the vote as much as possible, and as we saw on April 7 when Republicans forced thousands of people to vote in-person during a pandemic, there is no low they aren’t willing to stoop to to grab power."

U.S. District Judge James Peterson in Madison threw out a host of the GOP’s election laws as unconstitutional in July 2016. The statutes restricted early voting to weekends at only one location per municipality, replaced the state’s 10-day residency period for voting with a 28-day minimum and blocked voters from using expired student IDs at the polls.

Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund brought the lawsuit that sparked Peterson’s decision.

That same month, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee ruled that state residents who lack proper photo identification could vote with an affidavit affirming their identity. The American Civil Liberties Union brought the lawsuit that triggered the ruling.

The two rulings kept Wisconsin’s law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls intact. But the decisions still marked a big win for Democrats, who have long argued Republicans are using the photo ID law and other voting limitations to discriminate against the poor, racial minorities and younger voters who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republicans have insisted the changes are designed to create uniform rules statewide and combat voter fraud, although no one has shown any widespread fraud exists in the state.

Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two most Democratic cities, used Peterson and Adelman’s rulings to expand early voting hours and locations in the 2018 election where Democrats won every statewide office.

The 7th Circuit panel heard Republicans' appeal in February 2017, more than three years ago. Since then, there has been a wave of new lawsuits that resulted in extended registration and voting deadlines for Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary and state Supreme Court election. Those cases are ongoing and rulings could affect the rules for the upcoming Aug. 11 primary and Nov .3 presidential election.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald released this statement:

"This is a win for fair elections. The ruling puts municipalities in every corner of Wisconsin closer to equal footing when it comes to early in-person voting."

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler wrote in a tweet:

This is a developing story.