Bar Exams in the Pandemic JURIST Digital Scholars
Federal appeals court upholds Wisconsin voting restrictions
landrachuk / Pixabay
Federal appeals court upholds Wisconsin voting restrictions

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a number of Republican-authored voting restrictions in Wisconsin on Monday, reversing several lower court decisions. Judge Easterbrook explained in the opinion, in which Judges Kanne and Sykes joined, that the district court incorrectly held that the laws produced a disparate impact on black voters because the underlying political motivations of the Republican legislators who enacted the laws “was made because of politics” and not “because Democratic voters are more likely to be black.”

Among the more than a dozen provisions that the Seventh Circuit considered in the consolidated appeal was Wisconsin Act 369, which sought to restrict the number of hours per day and the number of days per week on which municipalities may offer in-person absentee voting. This provision was blocked in January 2019, but the injunction was reversed in part by the panel, which held it to be a permissible restriction on the days and hours of early voting because it applied to all voters equally. However, the part of the suit that involved arguments based on racial disparity in connection with the location of in-person absentee voting was remanded to the lower court with instructions to dismiss this part as moot because the Milwaukee clerk’s office is in fact centrally located, and the new law authorizes municipalities to designate multiple sites for in-person absentee voting. Easterbrook noted that the new rules significantly decrease the possibility that a single authorized location would become more convenient for one racial group.

The complex opinion involved an intricate patchwork of analyses and affirms in part, reverses in part, and vacates in part the many earlier judgments by the district court. The Seventh Circuit’s reversals now permit Wisconsin to implement an adjustment to the number of days and hours for in-person absentee voting, enforce the state’s increase in the durational residency requirement from 10 to 28 days before a person becomes eligible for voting, and enforce a prohibition on sending absentee ballots by email or fax.

The district court’s order related to the one-location rule is vacated and remanded to be dismissed as moot, and the previous order, which found the petition process for voters who lack certain ID documents to be unconstitutional, is remanded for further proceedings so that the lower court may order some relief so long as it does not “excuse[] applicants from the failure to comply with reasonable requests for information that is material to voting eligibility.”

However, the district court was affirmed on other grounds in holding that the provisions requiring student IDs used for voter registration purposes to be unexpired and accompanied by “dorm lists” that show citizenship information are unconstitutional.

Easterbrook reasoned that, even though the new voting rules may reduce some access to all voters, overall “Wisconsin has lots of rules that make voting easier.”