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Wisconsin Republicans move to cut early voting hours

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in Eau Claire, Wis. (Dan Reiland/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram voa AP)

Voters in Wisconsin would have less time to cast early ballots under a proposed bill that passed the Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday, the latest move in a nationwide string of Republican-led efforts to tighten voting rules.

The measure would require county clerks to limit early voting to 40 hours per week, between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It would end weekend early voting hours, which Democrats have used to turn out the vote in heavily urban areas such as Milwaukee and Madison.

Rep. Duey Stroebel (R), one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said standardizing early voting hours would level the playing field for voters in rural counties, where clerks sometimes don’t have the staff to keep polls open over weekends, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. But Democrats say the move is nothing more than an attempt to cut turnout rates in urban areas.

More than 256,000 Wisconsin residents voted early in person in 2012 — about 1 in 12 of the 3 million people who cast ballots in the presidential election, according to statistics maintained by the United States Elections Project at George Mason University. About 658,000 voters cast ballots [pdf] before Election Day, most of them by mail.

Broadly speaking, Democratic voters are more likely to cast early ballots in person, while Republican voters are more likely to cast ballots by mail. Exit polls conducted in 2012 showed President Obama won early voters by a 58 percent to 41 percent margin in Wisconsin; Obama won voters who cast ballots on Election Day by a 51 percent to 48 percent margin.

All but one of the 54 Assembly Republicans voted for the bill, while all 38 Democrats voted against it. The bill must now go through the Republican-led Senate, though it’s unclear when or if the upper chamber would take it up.

Cutting early voting hours was just one of the party-line votes that reignited partisan rancor in a legislature that has been mired in squabbling in recent years.

Republicans on Thursday also passed a measure that would allow voters to cast a ballot without an identification if they sign a sworn statement saying they were too poor to obtain an identification or that they had a religious objection to being photographed. And the Assembly advanced two bills that would limit recalls on statewide elected officials and legislators.

Thursday’s legislative session grew heated after Democrats brought up a resolution honoring the victims of last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The resolution failed on a party-line vote, even though it had passed unanimously in the Senate. In response, Republicans brought up and passed a bill to create “Choose Life” license plates, proceeds from which would go to an anti-abortion group.