U.S. judge won't postpone spring election, extends absentee deadlines

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- A federal judge has denied a trio of last minute lawsuits' request to postpone next Tuesday's spring election and presidential primary in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent wave of absentee ballots it caused.

PHOTO: 'I voted' sticker, Photo Date: February 6, 2008 (Source: Denise Cross Photography / CC BY 2.0)

However, U.S. District Judge William Conley has given Wisconsin voters a little more time to request an absentee ballot for the upcoming spring election and presidential primary and several more days to get those ballots returned.

"In the weeks leading up to the election, the extent of the risk of holding that election has become increasingly clear, and Wisconsin voters have begun to flock to the absentee ballot option in record numbers," Conley noted.

In his decision, handed down less than a week before Election Day, ordered the Wisconsin Election Commission allow people to ask for absentee ballots until 5 p.m. on Friday, April 3.

He also ordered commissioners to count ballots received well after voting concludes. Whereas, in a normal election year, absentee ballots would have needed to have arrived by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Conley’s order adds several more days to that deadline. County clerks will be required to tally all ballots that arrive before 4 p.m. on Monday, April 13.

Additionally, he sided with the plaintiffs who argued the current coronavirus outbreak could make it too difficult for some voters to meet the requirement to have a witness sign the ballot. He stated that the Commission should accept a written affirmation or other statement from the voter that they were unable to obtain that certification because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so long as the ballot is otherwise valid.

“No magic words are required by a voter to successfully make this affirmation, and it will be left up to the individual discretion of clerks as to whether to accept a voter’s excuse for not completing the witness certification requirement based on the written affirmation by the individual voter,” Conley wrote.

Conley also denied the Republicans’ motion for a stay on his order while it determined whether they would want to appeal to the Seventh Circuit of Appeals Court, noting that his injunction contain a window of time during which they can file for an emergency appeal.

Although they were not able to get the date of the election moved, the state Democratic party quickly claimed victory in the decision, calling it "a victory for voters, for public health, and for democracy itself."

"Every voter must count, even during crises, and this ruling gives voters critical time to vote safely by mail," it continued.

Democrats and a host of liberal-leaning groups had filed the three federal lawsuits, which were later combined, and were asking Conley to postpone in-person voting on Tuesday, allow clerks to send absentee ballots to all registered voters and give clerks until June 2 to count ballots.

During Wednesday's arguments told the groups' attorneys during a hearing Wednesday that they haven't shown the crisis impinges on people's voting rights.

Conley also called out state leadership for not doing their part, saying during closing arguments this is a public health crisis Evers and Republicans refuse to accept.

Evers, who filed a brief on Tuesday urging the federal judge to help loosen absentee voting requirements, complimented the decision to loosen some of the restrictions.

"It’s great news that Wisconsinites will have more time to request and submit a ballot and that clerks will have more time to count ballots," he said. "I continue to encourage every Wisconsinite to request their absentee ballot and vote safely from home."