Appeals court upholds absentee ballot extension, but restores signatures

By: - April 3, 2020 11:09 pm
"VOTE" feet making the V letter in red white and blue sneakers by Theresa Thompson

“VOTE” feet in V by Theresa Thompson (CC BY 2.0)

On Friday evening, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago denied emergency appeals by the Republican Party and the Wisconsin Legislature seeking to stop a district court’s order extending the deadline by which absentee ballots may be received in the April 7 election until 4 p.m. on April 13.

But while the appeals court let the extension to April 13 stand, it overturned the part of District Court Judge William Conley’s order that would have allowed voters to skip the requirement that they obtain a witness signature on their absentee ballots.

“This court is concerned with the overbreadth of the district court’s order, which categorically eliminates the witness requirement applicable to absentee ballots and gives no effect to the state’s substantial interest in combatting voter fraud,” the appeals court’s order states.

The order seems to suggest that the Wisconsin Elections Commission could find a creative way to get around the witness signature requirement, which poses particular difficulties for people living alone during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[W]e have every reason to believe the Commission, in keeping with the forward-leaning action it has taken thus far to accommodate voters’ interests while also striving to ensure their safety, will continue to consider yet other ways for voters to satisfy the statutory signature requirement (if possible, for example, by maintaining the statutory presence requirement but not requiring the witness’s physical signature). It is best to leave these decisions and any more particular prescriptions to the Commission.”

Finally, the court found that the State Legislature has standing to pursue its appeal, “and that the district court erred in refusing to permit the Legislature to intervene in the case”.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a statement on Friday night welcoming the appeals court’s decision.

“We’re pleased to see the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals uphold the rule of law by requiring witness signatures on absentee ballots to prevent fraud, and we accept that clerks need more time to count ballots,” the legislative leaders stated. “We still have grave concerns about election security by allowing votes to be postmarked or submitted after Election Day, and plan to appeal that issue to the United States Supreme Court.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.