‘Far, far from being fair’: Appeals court ruling will shorten in-person absentee voting in Madison

MADISON, Wis. — An appeals court decision on Monday that was years in the making will shorten early voting in Madison this fall.

Among other changes, the 7th Circuit ruling cuts the length of the in-person absentee voting window in the city from six weeks to two weeks.

The Madison city clerk said she is worried about the impact this will have on voters.

“We will do everything we can to follow the law and offer equitable access to casting a ballot, but this ruling makes it much more difficult to do so,” said Maribeth Witzel-Behl, the city clerk in Madison.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald praised the decision, calling it a win for fair elections.

“The ruling puts municipalities in every corner of Wisconsin closer to equal footing when it comes to early in-person voting,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Witzel-Behl disagreed.

“They can argue that it’s uniform, but it is far, far from being fair, and it’s far from being equitable,” she said.

The decision overturns a previous lower court ruling that argued the restrictions on in-person absentee voting unfairly affected African Americans in Milwaukee, but the circuit court judge said Republicans were looking at politics, not race, with the restrictions.

“Well it looks like parties can do whatever they want now to election laws so long as they don’t engage in unequivocal racial discrimination,” said Mike Wagner, a political scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wagner said the decision is another sign of a polarized country, and it could have a larger impact on racial minorities. Wagner’s research shows Black people already have to travel farther and Hispanic people have to wait longer to vote.

Witzel-Behl said she worries this ruling could mean the return of long, sometimes hours-long, lines to vote, and given the pandemic could lead to disenfranchisement.

“That creates a situation where there could be people who feel they have no option for casting their ballot and might feel that voting is not a possibility for them,” she said.