Judge Dismisses Van Hollen's Voter Lawsuit

AG's Office, Republican Party To Appeal Ruling

Published On: Oct 23 2008 10:59:08 AM CDT   Updated On: Oct 24 2008 07:56:01 AM CDT

A Dane County circuit judge dismissed on Thursday the state attorney general's lawsuit regarding voter rolls.

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The judge's decision means the state does not have to electronically confirm the identities of an estimated 1 million Wisconsin voters.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi said that Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen doesn't have the power to bring the lawsuit, which demanded verification of thousands of voters' identities before Election Day. She said that she's convinced no violation of state or federal law is about to occur.

Some feared the lawsuit could remove thousands of people from the voter rolls just before Election Day, creating piles of provisional ballots and long lines for same-day registration.

The lawsuit demanded the state Government Accountability Board order local clerks to check the names of everyone who has registered to vote since Jan. 1, 2006, with driver's license and Social Security data as required by federal law and remove ineligible voters from the rolls.

The ruling is a huge victory for the state's nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which has claimed that its voter registration records are legal and accurate.

"It's a complete vindication for the positions of the Government Accountability Board, absolutely, 100 percent, and it should stand up very well in any court," said Lester Pines, attorney for the Government Accountability Board.

But the state attorney general and Republican Party said they will appeal Thursday's ruling. A Van Hollen spokesman said that they plan to appeal the case and that they would obtain a copy of the court transcript to begin to lay the groundwork.

"The judge was clear in her decision, and the question is whether or not the decision was correct," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

The top lawyer for the state court of appeals told WISC-TV that it is theoretically possible that an appeal could be decided before the election on Nov. 4.

During Thursday's hearing, attorneys for state election officials characterized Van Hollen's lawsuit as an unprecedented power grab. Pines told Sumi on Thursday morning that the checks are required under federal election law.

Pines said that no one but the U.S. attorney general has power to enforce the federal law and that the state has passed legislation giving the board authority to run elections and not the state attorney general.

He said Van Hollen has no authority to enforce that law and his lawsuit is a "breathtaking assertion of power."

The judge ruled that the state attorney general does not have the power to enforce the Help America Vote Act -- called HAVA -- or any state laws regarding it. HAVA was passed to clean up major problems associated with the 2000 election.

Sumi said the federal law leaves it up to the discretion of states how they specifically comply with HAVA, and that Wisconsin has done so and that she cannot intervene.

"To do so would be substituting a judge's opinion as to who can vote how and when," Sumi said.

But Assistant Attorney General Steven Means called the board's argument absurd and questioned who could enforce election laws other than the attorney general.

"Obviously, we disagree with the judge's ruling and that's why were seeking an appeal," said Kevin St. John, special assistant to Van Hollen.

Late Thursday, the Attorney General's Office said it was unclear when the appeal would be filed.

Government Accountability Board Director Kevin Kennedy said it was a "relief" to know the board's work was backed up by the court.