Wisconsin Lawsuit Seeks to Alter Registration, Absentee Rules for April 7 Primary in Wake of Coronavirus

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A new lawsuit in Wisconsin seeks to alter the state’s rules and deadlines for voter registration and absentee ballots in response to public health concerns related to the coronavirus. The Journal-Sentinel’s Patrick Marley has more:

A federal judge signaled Thursday he would issue a quick ruling on whether to extend absentee voting during the coronavirus outbreak as Wisconsin Republicans sought to halt the effort.

“I feel as though I’m going to need to act one way or the other under fairly strict timelines,” U.S. District Judge William Conley said during an hourlong telephone hearing.

He gave attorneys for the state Elections Commission and Republican-led Legislature until Friday to file briefs on whether he should change rules for the April 7 presidential primary because of the pandemic spanning the globe.

The Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic Party brought their suit Wednesday to ask the court to allow absentee ballots to be counted if they arrive after election day, allow people to vote absentee without providing a photo ID and give people more time to use an online portal to register to vote.

The changes are needed because the global pandemic will make it difficult for people to vote in person, the lawsuit argues.

One challenge in the Wisconsin case is that the vote is a full state primary and not just a presidential preference ballot – which raises the stakes (and makes it less likely Wisconsin will postpone like other states):

In addition to the presidential primary, the April 7 ballot includes a seat on the state Supreme Court and local offices across the state, including Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.

Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for GOP lawmakers, told the judge he would file paperwork Friday seeking to allow the Legislature to join the case and argue it should be thrown out. He said the election should be run following the rules that are already in place.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Keenan, who represents the Elections Commission, raised concerns about the Democrats’ request to reinstate online voter registration. Technical hurdles would make that difficult, he said.

Keenan raised the possibility during the hearing that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could issue an executive order using powers he has during emergencies to change aspects of how the election is conducted.

“We know that the governor is considering an executive order,” Keenan said.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff downplayed that possibility, saying Keenan does not represent Evers or speak for him…

Louisiana, Georgia and Ohio over the last week postponed their presidential primaries because of the pandemic. Evers has not supported doing that in part because the terms for many local offices begin later in April.

Delaying the election would be difficult and could mean leaving many local offices vacant at a critical time, the governor has said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking to loosen ID rules for absentee ballots and extend the time for voters to return them and still be counted:

The Democrats bringing the lawsuit want voters to be able to receive absentee ballots without having to provide a photo ID, and they want clerks to count absentee ballots that arrive by April 17 if they’re postmarked by election day.

Ordinarily, absentee ballots must be received by the time polls close at 8 p.m. on election day.

The Democrats are also asking the court to allow people to register to vote without having to provide a photo ID or proof of residence. They argue providing those documents is too burdensome when many libraries, copy shops and other businesses that have scanners and copiers are closed.

The lawsuit also seeks to extend voter registration beyond the current deadline:

The state stopped allowing people to go online to register to vote on Wednesday because of a deadline included in state law. The Democrats are asking the court to reinstate online voter registration and allow it to continue until April 3…

While online voter registration has ended, people can still register to vote in clerk’s offices until April 3 and at the polls on election day. Democrats say that is impractical for many people because health officials are telling people to stay home as much as possible.

Regardless of the outcome of the court case, election officials are urging Wisconsin voters to request absentee ballots – and the numbers suggest it’s having an impact:

Clerks are urging people to request absentee ballots as soon as possible to help them keep up with a surge of requests.

Wisconsin allows people to vote absentee for any reason. They don’t have to be out of town or give an excuse for voting absentee.

As of Thursday, more than 315,000 people had requested absentee ballots. That’s more than all absentee ballots that were cast in the 2016 presidential primary.

Obviously, the rapidly changing situation with the coronavirus will create more pressure on “elections as usual” under the current rules. It will be interesting to see how far the court is willing to go to change the rules in light of the current situation. Whatever the outcome, don’t be surprised if legal wrangling continues right up until primary day – because Wisconsin. Stay tuned…

 

2 Comments on "Wisconsin Lawsuit Seeks to Alter Registration, Absentee Rules for April 7 Primary in Wake of Coronavirus"

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