Thursday, August 25, 2016

Early voting poses no dangers to democracy -- but limits cause irreparable harm

Schimel temporarily drops appeal to early voting challenges, but he should do so permanently

Early voting is not a danger to democracy. But eliminating early voting is.

This is especially true in urban areas, where people who work long hours aren’t necessarily able to make it into the polling booth on the first Tuesday after the second Monday in November. Allowing communities to let people vote weeks in advance, or on weekends, is common sense.

Laws passed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislature changed that. They curtailed the ability of communities to offer early voting, barring completely early weekend voting. They also shortened early voting time, from 28 days before the election to 10 business days (the Monday before election day excluded). And laws mandated that early voting, if it were to take place, could only be done in one location, and not offered anywhere else within a given community.

That meant that early voting in larger Wisconsin cities could only happen at one site. Imagine needing to take a bus ride in Milwaukee to get to a polling location downtown -- a two-hour, one-way trip for some remote locations in the city, and a huge chunk of the day that many citizens can’t afford to give up during peak weekday hours.

A judge saw through the absurdity of these laws and recognized who they were meant to target: minority voters in large cities. U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson wrote late last month that:
Wisconsin’s rules for in-person absentee voting all but guarantee that voters will have different experiences with in-person absentee voting depending on where they live: voters in large cities will have to crowd into one location to cast a ballot, while voters in smaller municipalities will breeze through the process. And because most of Wisconsin’s African American population lives in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, the in-person absentee voting provisions necessarily produce racially disparate burdens. Moreover, plaintiffs have demonstrated that minorities actually used the extended hours for in-person absentee voting that were available to them under the old laws.

The court concludes that the in-person absentee voting provisions disparately burden African Americans and Latinos.
Emphasis in bold added.

Attorney General Brad Schimel appealed this ruling to a three-judge panel on the 7th District Court of Appeals. They denied his appeal in a one-sentence ruling: IT IS ORDERED the motion to stay is DENIED.

Schimel announced earlier this week that, in light of that ruling and due to the closeness of the next election cycle, he would not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And nor should he. Schimel’s original appeal was ill-conceived and wrong to begin with. Early voting is necessary for many residents of the state’s largest cities, and convenient for countless more. Reducing the ability of people to vote when they’re able to do so limits democracy, and it’s a fight that most Wisconsin citizens should recognize is not worth pursuing.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about the rules under which voting occurs. And certainly some limits should exist -- as an extreme example, we wouldn’t allow early voting to happen a year out from an election date. But it’s clear whom these new rules were intended to target (minority voters). And it’s doubly-clear that conservative lawmakers’ targeted these voters because they generally vote Democratic.

It is unfathomable that some insist we continue to even have this debate. And Wisconsin Republicans need to start caring about real issues that are relevant to citizens of the state, rather than conjuring up ideas of how they can remain in office through changing the rules of elections.

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