Wisconsin judge blocks Republican bid to weaken governor and erode voting rights

Oliver Laughland

A Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked Republican laws that curtailed the powers of a newly elected Democratic governor and rolled back voting rights across the state.

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The laws were passed during a lame-duck session shortly after the GOP lost control of the governor’s mansion during elections last year.

The ruling immediately prompted the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, to pull the state out of a challenge to federal healthcare legislation, known as Obamacare, the signature legislative achievement of president Obama’s tenure. Evers had pledged to do so during his election campaign last year but was essentially blocked from doing so under the hastily passed laws.

The statutes were passed in a series of so-called extraordinary sessions, and were described by critics as an illegal attempt to wrest power away from the incoming Democratic executive.

The temporary ruling by the Dane county circuit judge Richard Niess came as a result of legal action by advocacy groups. It follows a ruling in a separate federal lawsuit that blocked a set of controversial election laws, also passed in the lame-duck session, which sought to cut early voting in the state.

Wisconsin elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but turned red during the 2016 presidential election by a slim 22,748 vote margin. The state has been at the centre of a number of recent voting rights struggles. In 2018 the US supreme court remanded a case brought by Democratic voters who accused the Republican legislature of unconstitutional gerrymandering.

The state, under the conservative governor Scott Walker, also passed an aggressive voter ID law, which studies later found suppressed the votes of up to 200,000 people in the 2016 presidential election.

State Republican leaders pledged to appeal Thursday’s ruling, arguing the decision would lead to legislative chaos.

Governor Evers described the ruling as a significant victory.

“The legislature overplayed its hand by using an unlawful process to accumulate more power for itself and override the will of the people, despite the outcome of last November’s election,” he said in a statement.

The court’s order will remain in force until the judge lifts it or a higher court makes a further ruling.