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Voters cast their ballots at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center on Election Day.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Wisconsin is "still one of the easiest places in the country to vote," Gov. Scott Walker said in an interview with the Cap Times last week.

Ongoing litigation over a set of changes to the state's voting laws will continue early next year, with oral arguments in one lawsuit scheduled before the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 17.

The November election marked the first presidential election with the state's voter ID law in place. Passed in 2011, the law has gone through a series of legal challenges, roadblocks and court-ordered changes.

Despite overall turnout falling to a two-decade low, Wisconsin saw record-high early voting numbers in the presidential election, made possible by a lawsuit filed by the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute.

"It turns out that we got through the election this year with voter ID in place and I didn’t see any wailing or gnashing of teeth," Attorney General Brad Schimel said in an interview. "The people who completed the process through (the Department of Motor Vehicles) for getting temporary IDs, almost every single one of them got it."

A federal judge in July declined to overturn the state's voter ID law, but struck down several laws that limited in-person absentee voting to one location, limited early voting hours and eliminated weekend voting. Attorneys for the state and for the plaintiffs appealed the decision.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson also overturned laws that increased the residency requirement for voters from 10 days to 28 days, prohibited distributing absentee ballots by fax or email and required "dorm lists" used as proof of residence to include citizenship information.

Peterson also required changes to the ID petition process, by which free IDs are issued, and overturned a provision of the voter ID law banning the use of expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs at the polls.

In October, Peterson ordered the state to immediately provide more information to help people seeking state-issued voting credentials navigate the process, after finding there were "undeniably people who have been disenfranchised" by it.

Schimel said he was surprised, in particular, by Peterson's ruling that the state cannot place a limit on how many days before an election a municipality can allow in-person absentee voting.

"When there are some states that don’t permit it at all, it seems inconsistent," Schimel said. "In our opinion, there’s nothing that says you have to do this at all. We tried to put some limits, the court said no. That surprised me. I thought that was something that was clearer for us. But we’ll go duke it out."

One Wisconsin Institute executive director Scot Ross rejected the governor's and attorney general's arguments that voting is easy in Wisconsin.

"There's no disputing that Republicans, in their own words, said they passed laws like voter ID to win elections by keeping certain people from the ballot box. There's no denying that legal voters were prevented from having their voices heard on Election Day. And there's no defending denying the franchise to legal voters going forward," Ross said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told the Associated Press this week he is now open to allowing multiple locations for early voting.

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Vos had told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in November the Legislature would "probably have to" revisit the state's early voting laws to make voting more uniform across rural and urban areas.

The 2013 law limiting hours for in-person absentee voting "intentionally discriminates on the basis of race," Peterson ruled in July.

"Sure," Schimel said when asked whether he took issue with that finding. 

Schimel said racial disparities could be a "practical result" of voting laws, but not the intent, and said it's something the state has made efforts to remedy. He said a clear example of that would be a person born in Mississippi many decades ago, with a midwife rather than in a hospital, who did not receive a birth certificate.

"But that also means for that person to not have the qualifying identifying documents, they’ve never gotten a driver’s license, they didn’t serve in the military. It’s a pretty narrow set of circumstances," Schimel said. "So we’ve tried to address that — just because that person falls into those circumstances doesn’t mean they should be denied the right to vote."

Walker also said the state has made efforts to ensure its voting laws don't have an adverse effect, including providing free ID cards to those who request them. He also noted the state still has same-day voter registration.

"It’s why, particularly in April … we had the second-highest turnout in the presidential preference primary of any state in the country," Walker said. "Now, part of that isn’t just the ease of voting, it’s because we’ve got an engaged electorate just because of what’s happened the last six years. But I think it does, to me at least, makes the argument that it’s relatively easy to vote if you get that higher turnout."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.