Judge likely to issue a decision in election cases by the end of August

MADISON –  A federal judge said Monday he was likely to rule in a suite of election lawsuits by the end of August but warned those bringing the cases that he has limited powers to change voting rules ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

U.S. District Judge William Conley noted state election officials don’t have direct authority over municipal clerks, who are in charge of running their own elections. The lawsuits, which seek to change voting policies because of the coronavirus pandemic, have been brought against the Wisconsin Elections Commission but not local authorities.

“I’m not sure the Wisconsin Elections Commission has the power to direct the city of Milwaukee to change the number of polling locations (and) to ensure accessibility at those locations,” Conley said during a videoconference. 

Conley set a day-long hearing for Aug. 5 and said he would issue a ruling in the cases by the end of that month. That would allow time for appeals before the presidential election, he said. 

The voters and groups bringing the four lawsuits are focused on the fall election and are not seeking changes for the Aug. 11 primary. GOP lawmakers, the Republican National Committee and the state Republican Party have intervened in the cases to try to prevent changes to the rules. 

The cases seek to avoid some of the problems that marred the April election for state Supreme Court, when voters in Milwaukee and Green Bay had to wait in line for hours because most polling places were closed. Absentee voting set a state record as people turned to voting by mail, but many complained that they didn’t receive the ballots they had requested.

Conley eased some voting rules for the April election, such as by extending deadlines for registering to vote and returning absentee ballots. Some of the lawsuits he is now considering are continuations of that earlier litigation. 

Those bringing the lawsuits want the court to force the state to hire more poll workers, set up secure drop boxes for absentee ballots in every community and notify voters if their ballots won’t be counted so they have time to fix any problems. They also want the state to expand drive-up voting opportunities and lift the photo ID and witness requirements for immunocompromised people who vote absentee.

Conley said he was concerned that some of what the plaintiffs are seeking is too amorphous. And he noted he is bound by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that partially overturned Conley’s ruling over how to conduct the April election. 

“I think the underlying message of that court is pretty clear,” Conley said. 

In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized that changes to voting rules should not be made close to elections and said absentee ballots that were received after election day could be counted only if they were postmarked by election day.

Absentee ballot request forms to be sent

One of the lawsuits initially sought to force the state to send absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters for the presidential election. In the weeks since then, the state Elections Commission decided on its own to do that and plans to send out 2.7 million request forms. 

Absentee voting is expected to surpass the record set in April, when nearly 1 million people voted by mail. President Donald Trump and some other Republicans have opposed expanded mail voting, but the overwhelming majority of GOP lawmakers from Wisconsin voted that way in April, according to The Associated Press. 

Conley is considering the cases as a panel of appeals judges weighs a decision in a separate challenge to numerous election laws, including the state’s voter ID requirement. That case has been pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for more than three years — an unusually long time —  and no one has said when it will issue its ruling. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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