Federal Judge Won’t Postpone Wisconsin Primary, But Expands Voting

April 3, 2020 by Dan McCue
Katherine Katsekes, and Diane Scott, both paid volunteers, help sort absentee ballots by ward to be opened on election day at Brookfield City Hall, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

A federal judge on Thursday refused to push back the date of Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary despite concerns about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. District Judge William Conley’s ruling came after listening to arguments Wednesday over whether the primary should be moved while dire warnings about the outbreak from the White House are forcing many Americans to stay at home, practicing social distancing.

Compounding the situation, Wisconsin is facing a shortage of poll workers next week.

“As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards,” Conley wrote.

But he did try to mitigate the potential harm caused by Tuesday’s election.

Specifically, he extended the deadline to request an absentee ballot to 5 p.m. Friday, April 3, and gave voters until April 13 to get those ballots to county clerks.

The judge also lifted a witness requirement for absentee ballot applications, writing that voters can provide a written affirmation that they could not safely obtain a witness signature due to coronavirus fears.

In his ruling, Conley makes plain that despite his reservations about the “ill-advised” upcoming election, he nevertheless believes that it is inappropriate for a federal judge to take on the role of state health officer.

“The only role of a federal district court is to take steps that help avoid the impingement on citizens’ rights to exercise their voting franchise as protected by the United States Constitution and federal statutes,” Conley wrote. “That is what the court attempts to do … understanding that a consequence of these measures may be to further the public health crisis in this state. Unfortunately, that is beyond the power of this court to control.”

The ruling marks a partial victory for Democrats and liberal groups who argued that thousands of voters might be disenfranchised because time is running out to file absentee ballots.

The party and the groups had filed three lawsuits demanding that Conley postpone in-person voting, extend the deadlines for filing absentee ballots and lift requirements that absentee voters supply photo IDs with their ballot applications and get a witness to sign the ballot before returning it.

“We are glad that the court came to the right decision today,” said Democratfc National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. “Expanding access to absentee voting is critical in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and we continue to encourage all states to pursue vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee voting to ensure that all eligible voters who want to cast a ballot have the means and ability to do so.”

Several states have postponed elections or shifted to all mail in the face of the pandemic. But Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican leaders have been committed to Wisconsin’s date. 

They argued there’s no guarantee conditions will improve in a couple of months and postponing the election risks leaving many local offices unfilled for an extended period.

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