After he was defeated for reelection in November, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature mounted a lame-duck power grab designed to thwart the will of the people. One part of the power grab involved schemes to limit the authority of Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, both of whom have since taken office. The other part sought to prevent a repeat of the sort of high-turnout election that defeated Walker and every other statewide Republican candidate in 2018.
At the heart of the latter move were rule changes designed to limit in-person early voting in Wisconsin. Walker and the Republican-controlled state Assembly and Senate imposed a two-week cap on early voting, along with related restrictions. They also limited the types of identification students could use to cast ballots.
On Thursday, US District Judge James Peterson ruled that the lame-duck legislation that was signed in December by Walker—who is widely believed to be plotting a political comeback—had violated injunctions issued by Peterson in 2016 against previous GOP moves to limit early voting.
Lawyers for the Republicans who still control the legislature—because of extreme gerrymandering—had argued that Peterson’s 2016 injunction no longer applied, because they had enacted new and slightly different legislation. The judge rejected that claim, noting that “The scope of the injunction relates to conduct that the court concluded was unlawful; the particular statutory provisions at issue are not important.”
“This is not a close question,” concluded Judge Peterson, “the three challenged provisions are clearly inconsistent with the injunctions that the court has issued in this case.”
That was a serious smackdown for Walker, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, noted former US attorney general Eric Holder.
“Today’s court ruling is a victory for the citizens of Wisconsin and a rebuke to their defeated former governor and his cronies in the state legislature,” said Holder, whose National Redistricting Foundation provided support for the challenge to the new law that was brought by the One Wisconsin Institute and the Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund. “Every voter in the state should be asking one question: Why are Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature so afraid of the people they claim they want to represent? Though we are heartened by this decision we will continue to fight any further efforts designed to undermine democracy in Wisconsin or any other part of our nation.”
In a broader sense, the federal judge’s ruling was a rebuke to all the political charlatans who seek to gain electoral advantages by gaming the rules against high-turnout elections. As Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund Executive Director Robert Kraig explained, “This ruling is a major victory in the battle to protect and expand voting rights in Wisconsin. It is our hope that the constant political attempts to erect artificial barriers to voting will become a thing of the past, so we can work together to assure that everyone in Wisconsin has unfettered access to the ballot box.”
While other elements of their lame-duck legislation remain on the books, as of now, Judge Peterson’s ruling lends credence to complaints by Evers, Kaul, good-government groups, newspaper editorial boards, and even some Republicans that Walker, Vos, and Fitzgerald went too far in their post-election power grab.
One Wisconsin Institute executive director Scot Ross summed things up well when he said: “Robin Vos and the Republicans have been told by the federal court in no uncertain terms that they are not above the law.”