A sign urging people to vote by mail in Maple Bluff, a few blocks from the governors mansion (photo by Ruth Conniff).
District Court Judge William Conley issued an order on Thursday afternoon granting in part, and denying in part, the suit by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, the Democratic National Committee and voting-rights groups that he postpone the April 7 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Conley found that he does not have the authority to postpone the election or cancel in-person voting, the court order extends the deadline by which absentee ballots must be received by election officials from April 7 to April 13 at 4 pm. His order also gives voters another day to request absentee ballots — up until 5 pm on April 3. And it calls off the enforcement of the requirement that voters provide a witness signature on their absentee ballots. Instead, voters may provide a written statement explaining that they made reasonable efforts to safely get their ballots witnessed and failed to do so.
Conley made it clear that he does not approve of state officials’ decision to move forward with in-person voting on April 7, even though he said it is not the court’s place to postpone the entire election.
“Contrary to the view of at least a dozen other states, as well as the consensus of medical experts across the country as to the gathering of large groups of people, the State of Wisconsin appears determined to proceed with an in-person election on April 7, 2020,” Conley wrote.
“[T]he three most likely consequences of proceeding with the election on this basis,” he asserted, “are (1) a dramatic shortfall in the number of voters on election day as compared to recent primaries, even after accounting for the impressive increase in absentee voters, (2) a dramatic increase in the risk of cross-contamination of the coronavirus among in-person voters, poll workers and, ultimately, the general population in the State, or (3) a failure to achieve sufficient in-person voting to have a meaningful election and an increase in the spread of COVID-19.”
But however “ill-advised” the governor and state Legislature’s plan to keep polling places open and proceed with the election on April 7 may be, Conley writes, “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 ordered remedies to the backlog of absentee ballots, and the difficulties faced by voters left alone in their homes during the pandemic.
Conley issued his order to facilitate voting, “understanding that a consequence of these measures may be to further the public health crisis in this State,” he adds, “Unfortunately, that is beyond the power of this court to control.”
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