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Judge strikes down Wisconsin election laws that thwart Democratic voters

A federal judge has thrown out a number of Wisconsin election laws passed in recent years, ruling they’re unconstitutional and serve no purpose except to unfairly benefited Republicans by making it more difficult for Democrat-leaning groups to vote.

Unlike rulings against similar election laws enacted by Republicans in North Carolina and Texas, U.S. District Judge James Peterson’s ruling did not eliminate Wisconsin’s voter identification law. But he ordered the state to quickly issue valid voter credentials for anyone who seeks a free photo ID but lacks documents, such as birth certificates, that are required under the Republican law.

Peterson call the state’s current process for getting free IDs to people who lack such documents “a wretched failure,” because it left a number of overwhelmingly black and Hispanic citizens unable to obtain IDs, The Associated Press reported.

Peterson also struck down election laws limiting municipalities to one location for in-person absentee voting and limiting in-person early voting to weekdays. He said that denying the right to vote on weekends intentionally discriminates against blacks in Milwaukee.

Peterson also struck down: an increase in residency requirements from 10 to 28 days; a prohibition on using expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs to vote; and a prohibition on distributing absentee ballots by fax or email.

“Wisconsin has the authority to regulate its elections to preserve their integrity, and a voter ID requirement can be part of a well-conceived election system,” Peterson wrote. “But … parts of Wisconsin’s election regime fail to comply with the constitutional requirement that its elections remain fair and equally open to all qualified electors.”

Peterson’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit brought by two liberal groups — One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund Inc. They argued that the election laws were unconstitutional and discriminate against the poor, racial minorities and younger voters — all of whom are more inclined to vote Democratic. They presented evidence at trial to show that Republicans passed the laws not in reaction to voter fraud, which is not a problem in the state but rather to suppress Democratic turnout.

Defense attorneys countered that the laws, all passed since Walker and Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2011, have not suppressed turnout and that the state works hard to ensure everyone who needs a free ID to vote gets one.

“We argued Gov. Walker made it harder for Democrats to vote and easier for Republicans to cheat, and the judge agreed,” said Scott Ross, director of One Wisconsin Now, an arm of One Wisconsin Institute.

Hillary for Wisconsin released a statement praising Peterson’s decision..

“Attempts to restrict the democratic rights of Americans were defeated,” said Jake Hajdu, state director. “Now, Wisconsin residents who are eligible to vote, will be able to participate in our democracy and cast their constitutionally protected ballot.

“Hillary Clinton believes we must do everything we can to make it easier — not harder — for Americans to vote. And we cannot take our democratic rights for granted. The stakes are too high in this election. It is a choice between building walls between us and tearing people down or an optimistic and unifying vision where everyone has a role to play in building our future.”

The changes ordered to the laws cannot be implemented in time for the Aug. 9 primary elections in the state. But Peterson ordered them to be in place by the November general election.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s  Republican leaders are not giving up their fight to make it harder for likely Democratic voters to cast ballots. The state Department of Justice, which defended the laws, told AP that the agency plans to appeal to the 7th District Court of Appeals.

[UPDATED: Adds response to the decision from Hillary for Wisconsin.]