Judge blocks Republican-backed limited Wisconsin early-voting law

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge in Wisconsin on Thursday blocked a Republican-backed law that would limit early voting across the state to two weeks, finding the new legislation was essentially the same as a previous statute he stopped 2-1/2 years ago.

The early-voting bill was part of a package of laws that the Republican-controlled legislature passed during a rare all-night lame-duck session in December, which included measures aimed at curbing the powers of incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers.

The effort drew criticism from Democrats that Republicans were effectively ignoring the will of the voters after Evers’ victory in November’s midterm election ended eight years of total Republican control of the state capitol. Similar lame-duck sessions in Michigan and North Carolina also provoked controversy.

The state’s largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, offered six weeks of early voting last year, while smaller municipalities with fewer resources provided shorter windows.

Republicans have argued that the early-voting law would simply create a uniform standard for the entire state, while Democrats contend that the statute is meant to stifle voting among young, poor and minority voters.

In 2016, U.S. District Judge James Peterson blocked a similar law, finding that Republicans enacted it for partisan gain.

On Thursday, Peterson said the new law was essentially the same as the old one, after the plaintiffs in the case, including the progressive group One Wisconsin, asked him to block it from taking effect.

“This is not a close question: The three challenged provisions are clearly inconsistent with the injunctions that the court has issued in this case,” he wrote.

Peterson also stopped two other provisions from taking effect: One that would prohibit voters from using expired student identifications and one that would prohibit voters from using temporary IDs for more than 60 days.

The original case is currently before a federal appeals court in Chicago, which heard arguments on the issue and other election-related laws nearly two years ago but has yet to rule.

Republican legislative leaders did not immediately comment on the decision.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)