Hillary Clinton's top campaign lawyer has filed a new legal challenge to a slew of restrictive voting laws signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
If successful, the suit could knock down barriers to voting in a key 2016 battleground. And if Clinton and Walker are their parties’ nominees, it could also inject a high-profile voting rights showdown into the presidential campaign.
The complaint, filed Friday in federal court, charges that the “right [to vote] has been under attack in Wisconsin since Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and both houses of the State Legislature in the 2010 election.”
It seeks to overturn not only the state’s controversial voter ID law, but also a host of other restrictive measures that have largely flown under the radar. All these measures, the suit alleges, have already made it harder for Wisconsinites to cast a ballot, and target “African-American, Latino, young, and/or Democratic voters in Wisconsin in particular,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Among the attorneys bringing the suit is Marc Elias, a veteran Democratic election lawyer who in March was named general counsel to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The campaign itself isn’t officially involved. But Rick Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Irvine, wrote online Friday: “It is hard to believe such a suit would not be brought with Marc’s involvement without political vetting by the Clinton campaign.”
"The lawsuit was not filed on behalf of the campaign, but we are aware of it and strongly support its goal of ensuring the right to vote is not unduly burdened," Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement.
Asked whether the campaign had vetted the lawsuit, Ian Sams, another campaign spokesman, declined to comment.
Last month, Elias brought a similar lawsuit against restrictive voting laws in Ohio. In response, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a defendant, portrayed the suit as a Clinton campaign initiative in all but name.
And Walker—who is leading in Iowa, according to a new poll—isn’t named as a defendant in Friday’s challenge against Wisconsin’s voting laws, though he signed all but one, and publicly advocated for the voter ID law. But there’s no question that the effort is a shot across the governor’s bow.
It even accuses Walker of making a “racial appeal” during his 2012 gubernatorial recall election, when he declared: “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.”
A spokesman for the state's Government Accountability Board, which administers elections and is named as the defendant in the suit, referred a request for comment to the state attorney general's office. Anne Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said her office is reviewing the suit. A spokeswoman for Walker didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wisconsin’s voter ID requirement was already challenged once by a coalition of voting rights groups. It was struck down under the Voting Rights Act by a federal district court judge, then reinstated by an appeals court panel. Thanks to that precedent, only the U.S. Supreme Court could strike down the ID provision, should the case go that far. According to expert testimony given at the district court trial, around 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters, disproportionately black and Latino, don’t have the ID required.
But the other challenged provisions haven’t yet been considered by a court. Indeed, the complaint highlights the reality that since Republicans gained control of Wisconsin’s legislature and governorship in 2010, they’ve run a sweeping and concerted campaign to make voting harder that rivals that of any state in the country. The effort came after President Obama easily won the state in 2008 thanks to record minority turnout, while white turnout actually decreased from 2004.
“[W]e’ve had about 25 bills that deal with elections and voting, and I think almost anybody could say to themselves, ‘What on earth is going on?’” State Senator Dale Schultz, a Republican, said in March 2014, the complaint notes.
In addition to the voter ID law, the GOP-led legislature has passed, and Walker has signed, measures that:
•Reduced the early voting period from 30 to 12 days.•Further cut early voting opportunities by eliminating on weekends and in the evening.•Eliminated straight-ticket voting for all but overseas and military voters, adding to wait times at the polls.•Required proof of residence when registering to vote, except for overseas or military voters.•Barred the state from certifying statewide voter registrars, meaning anyone who registers voters can only do so in a particular county where they’re certified.•Made it harder for college students to use their IDs as proof of residence when registering to vote.•Increased residency requirements from 10 to 28 days, except for presidential elections.•Required that those who move within the state in the four weeks prior to an election vote in their old location not their new one. •Eliminated the faxing or emailing of absentee ballots, except to overseas or military voters.•Barred municipal clerks from returning absentee ballots to voters so they can fix mistakes.•Required that an area for poll monitors be set up between three and eight feet from the table where voters sign in.
All of these restrictions are at issue in the new lawsuit. Also being challenged is the state's requirement that early voting can take place only at the clerk's office. The restriction, which has existed since early voting began in the state, means Milwaukee will have hundreds of thousands more voters at its single early voting location than some smaller municipalities will have. Lawmakers in 2013 rejected a Democratic bill that would have allowed more than one site.
Among the plaintiffs are a mixed-race group of voters said to be burdened by these rules. They range in age from 19 to 70.
Correction: This article originally said that the state had estimated that 300,000 Wisconsinites lacked the ID needed to vote. In fact, this estimate came from expert testimony given at the law's trial.