‘At their own peril’ federal lawsuit from city of Green Bay requests election delay

An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)
An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)

The City of Green Bay has a backlog of 4,083 absentee ballots waiting to be processed and has already sent 5,537 ballots out the door. Statewide, elections clerks have received more than 600,000 absentee ballot requests with more sure to come. 

After an order from a federal judge, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) re-opened online voter registration Wednesday — which will continue to bring the absentee ballot total closer to the high water mark of November 2016, a presidential general election that had more than 800,000 absentee ballots cast. 

With the April 7 election less than two weeks away, there are 585 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and six people have died, as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Recent models from the state show that without social distancing, Wisconsin could be facing 22,000 people sick and anywhere between 440  and 1,500 deaths by April 8.

These are the facts as the WEC homepage continues to state — in bold font and in no uncertain terms — “The April 7 Spring Election and Presidential Preference Primary is occurring as scheduled.”

“It’s not business as usual, but it’s business as unusual,” WEC spokesman Reid Magney says. “We’re pushing ahead.”

But a lawsuit from the City of Green Bay filed Tuesday in federal court aims to change the current set of facts.

“It’s pretty obvious to people in the medical profession on the public health side of things that this is an incredibly ridiculous idea to move forward with this election in person,” Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich says.

The lawsuit, filed against Gov. Tony Evers, Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm and all six of the state’s elections commissioners, requests a temporary restraining order to delay the election to June 2 and make all voting by mail. 

The suit asks that the April 7 election be canceled and replaced by an entirely vote-by-mail election with June 2 as the deadline for clerks to have counted all returned ballots. It also requests that the deadline for voter registration be moved back again, this time to May 1. 

The suit argues continuing to hold in-person voting April 7 puts municipal staff, poll workers and voters in the difficult spot of choosing between health and democracy. 

“Anyone who shows up to a polling location on Election Day does so at their own peril — voters and poll workers alike,” the lawsuit states.

The problems outlined in the lawsuit were all brought up by the WEC in a meeting last week, but the suit alleges the solutions offered by the commission were “impractical and insufficient.” 

The suit says there’s a lack of envelopes for absentee ballots and a backlog of requests as city clerks rush to handle the onslaught. 

It also says there are not enough sanitizing products for polling locations and about half of Green Bay’s normal crop of poll workers has already said they won’t be available on election day.

“This is a logistical trainwreck and a public health travesty,” says Genrich. “We can see this coming, we know what the future looks like and we just need action on the part of the state.”

If the lawsuit fails, the city will do everything it’s legally obligated to do, despite the challenges presented by holding an election during a pandemic, according to Genrich. In the meantime, he continued to push people toward absentee ballots. 

“As it stands, the practical request of people is the choice between their health and right to vote,” Genrich says. “Given the tools at our disposal, continue to promote absentee balloting. That’s as close to a silver bullet solution as we can see. [Vote-by-mail] is something that a number of states do for every single election. Given enough time, this is a perfectly reasonable and safe way to vote.”

Magney said municipalities are equipped to handle the large amount of absentee requests. 

“In November of 2016, clerks around the state processed 819,000 absentee ballots for that election,” he says. “So they have processed a large number of absentee ballots before. We certainly will be giving them advice on it, but it’s something they already know how to do. This is something that they should be prepared to do.”

Genrich says the lawsuit has a “compelling argument,” and that for now, he’s focused entirely on the election in front of him. But, after April 7, candidates in elections to be held in the fall will need to start gathering signatures April 15 and a special election for the seventh congressional district is scheduled for May 12. 

“I’m really focused on April 7 right now, getting whatever relief we can,” Genrich says. “But the pandemic is going to complicate all kinds of electioneering efforts and election administrative processes.”