Attorneys argue Wisconsin election laws are discriminatory


MADISON, Wis. (AP) — An attorney challenging a host of election laws championed by Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker told a federal judge in closing arguments Thursday that they discriminate against non-white voters and young people and should be found unconstitutional.

Bruce Van Spiva represents two liberal groups challenging more than a dozen new Wisconsin election rules passed since 2011, including a voter identification requirement. Attorneys for the state Department of Justice were to defend the measures in closing arguments later Thursday.

The laws being challenged include provisions of the voter ID requirement, particularly the process used to grant free IDs to people who don’t have the required documentation, limitations on early voting times and places and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson has promised to rule by the end of July but has said that will be too late to affect the Aug. 9 primary for the field of candidates running for dozens of state and federal races will be narrowed before the Nov. 8 general election.

Peterson delivered an apparent blow to the central argument of the plaintiffs on Thursday, saying he wasn’t convinced that the laws had a dramatic effect on elections.

“I don’t see anything really compelling showing the voter ID law or any of the other changes had a powerful impact on any of the elections,” Peterson said.

He referenced comments from Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, made in an interview in April, that he thought the voter ID law would help Republicans in the November election. Peterson said he didn’t think the evidence showed it would help Republicans significantly, or that it would hurt Democrats as much as was argued.

“I guess I don’t see anything powerful in either way,” he said.

The plaintiffs argue that the laws discriminate against the poor, racial minorities and younger voters who are more inclined to vote Democratic. The state Department of Justice counters that they have not suppressed turnout and the state works hard to ensure everyone who needs a free ID to vote gets one.

Van Spiva argued Thursday that if the judge finds any parts of the law are discriminatory, he must rule the entire law unconstitutional and block enforcement. He said the evidence showed Republicans were motivated to pass the laws to suppress Democratic turnout and there was no need to make the changes.

He cited testimony of Todd Allbaugh, who was chief of staff to then state-Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican. Allbaugh testified that Republican senators said in a closed-door meeting discussing the voter ID law that it was needed to improve the GOP’s chances of winning elections by reducing turnout in urban areas and college campuses.

But the judge raised questions about whether Allbaugh’s testimony could be trusted, given that he left the Republican Party partly out of disgust over passage of the voter ID law.

“It’s score settling. I’m not doubting his real sincerity but his perspective is hostile to his former party,” Peterson said. “He feels betrayed.”

Some of the law changes being challenged include: reducing early voting from 30 days before an election to 12 days; limiting the hours it can take place and restricting early voting to one location per municipality; eliminating straight ticket voting; doing away with requiring special election deputies be assigned at high schools; and prohibiting local governments from requiring landlords to distribute voter-registration forms to new tenants.

The lawsuit was brought by the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute Inc., social justice group Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and 10 voters.

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