Federal judge hears challenge to Wisconsin election laws

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Posted: May 16, 2016 4:17 PM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans were "giddy" about a voter identification requirement enacted in 2011 that they saw as an opportunity to drive down Democratic turnout at the polls, a former chief of staff to a GOP state senator testified Monday in a federal trial targeting that law and others.

The lawsuit targets more than a dozen changes to Wisconsin's election law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker since 2011. Two liberal advocacy groups and affected voters argue the changes are a violation the federal Voting Rights Act, the First Amendment and the equal protection clause.

Their attorney, Josh Kaul, said in opening statements that evidence will show the changes create a "torturous" process making it harder to vote for college students as well as blacks, Hispanics and other minorities who tend to support Democrats.

"Wisconsin is simply a better place than these laws suggest," Kaul said. "They're an embarrassment and a stain on the history of the state. Plain and simple."

Todd Allbaugh, chief of staff at the time to then-state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican from Richland Center, testified about a closed-door meeting of GOP lawmakers discussing the photo ID proposal in 2011. Allbaugh said some were "giddy" and "politically frothing at the mouth" at the idea, while others sat "ashen faced."

Allbaugh testified that then-state Sen. Glenn Grothman, now representing the 6th Congressional District in eastern Wisconsin, interrupted Schultz when he expressed reservations.

"What I'm concerned about is winning," Grothman said, according to Allbaugh's testimony.

Allbaugh said Grothman called him last month after Allbaugh first talked publicly about his comments in that 2011 meeting. Grothman said he didn't recall making the comments but he didn't dispute saying it either, Allbaugh said.

Grothman did not immediately return a message on his cellphone for comment.

Attorneys also played footage of a television news interview with Grothman, from last month, where he was asked about Republicans' chances in the presidential election and said "I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well."

Assistant Attorney General Clay Kawski, who is defending the laws for the state, said increased voter turnout since they went into effect disproves those arguments. And, he said, few voters have experienced problems compared with how many have successfully gotten free IDs, fueling an increase in voter turnout.

More than 47 percent of voting-age adults cast ballots in the April 5 presidential primary, the highest since 1972.

"Wisconsin elections are fair, easy to navigate and open to all," Kawski said.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson, who is presiding over the trial, expressed skepticism with the state's argument that the increase in voter turnout proves the laws aren't suppressing the ability of some to cast ballots. Peterson said he was "not eager" to embrace that argument and expected the claim to be "sharply contested."

Some of the law changes being challenged include: reducing early voting from 30 days before an election to 12 days; limiting the hours it can take place and restricting early voting to one location per municipality; eliminating straight ticket voting; doing away with requiring special election deputies be assigned at high schools; and prohibiting local governments from requiring landlords to distribute voter-registration forms to new tenants.

Showing an image of a sink on an overhead projector in the courtroom, Kawski said that those challenging the laws were throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their arguments in what he called a "scattershot approach." He discounted their evidence as being speculative, anecdotal and not proving there are widespread problems with voting access under the laws.

He said that since July 2011 the state has issued 420,000 free ID cards while just 52 people have been denied through the petition process, at a rate of just 0.12 percent. And he said an emergency rule related to issuing those IDs by the state Division of Motor Vehicles signed by Walker last week wasn't designed to blunt the impact of the lawsuit, but "to help people get ID cards. That's what's going on."

The lawsuit was brought by the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute Inc., social justice group Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and 10 voters.

More than 60 witnesses were expected to testify during the trial that's scheduled to conclude next week. Peterson is expected to issue a ruling later.

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