A panel of three federal judges on Monday upheld a slate of Republican-authored restrictions on early voting and absentee ballots in Wisconsin, a decision rights groups warned could suppress votes and heighten the risk of spreading Covid-19 in upcoming elections.
The trio of Republican-appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago overturned a 2016 lower court decision and ruled that a Wisconsin law restricting early voting to just two weeks before an election must be reinstated.
"Right-wing judicial activists just gave their Republican allies in Wisconsin's legislature a green light to suppress votes."
—John Nichols, The Nation
"Early voting is not a fundamental right in itself; it is but one aspect of a state's election system," Judge Frank Easterbrook, a Reagan appointee, wrote in the 27-page ruling. "As we have stressed, Wisconsin's system as a whole is accommodating."
The panel also ruled that faxing and emailing absentee ballots to prospective voters is unconstitutional and said people must live in a district for at least 28 days, rather than 10, before voting there.
The court did not explain why its ruling came more than three years after it first heard Wisconsin Republicans' 2017 appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down several voting restrictions the state GOP enacted after taking full control of the legislature in 2011.
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"They let this case collect dust for three years," tweeted Courtney Beyer, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "And they decide today, four months out from Election Day, that 'early voting is not a fundamental right' in the middle of a pandemic. Just outrageous."
In a series of tweets Tuesday morning, advocacy group Common Cause Wisconsin called the ruling "a huge blow to voting rights in a state that already had among the most restrictive and extreme voting laws in the nation, and not to mention just weeks before the next election in August."
"One positive is that the judges ruled that expired photo student IDs can be used as proof of identity to vote," the group noted.
John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a Wisconsin native, tweeted that "right-wing judicial activists... just gave their Republican allies in Wisconsin's legislature a green light to suppress votes."
"If there is a Covid-19 surge," warned Nichols, "the court's decision will make voting more dangerous."