MADISON – A federal judge reinstated Wisconsin’s online voter registration system late Friday to help people find ways to participate in the April 7 presidential election amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Wisconsin stopped allowing people to use the state’s online voter registration system Wednesday in accordance with a state law that limits online registration just ahead of an election. But U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled that the online portal must be put back in place because of the coronavirus outbreak that has disrupted everyday activities around the globe.
Conley, for now, declined to grant other requests made by the Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic Party, such as allowing absentee ballots to be counted if they arrive after election day. Conley raised the possibility in his 21-page ruling that he would allow that practice in a subsequent decision in the coming weeks.
State officials have said it could take up to 72 hours to resume allowing people to register through their election website, myvote.wi.gov.
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In a lawsuit they filed Wednesday against the state Elections Commission in federal court in Madison, the Democrats asked for changes to some voting laws because they say it is too risky for people to vote in person. The state in the last week has seen a surge in requests to vote absentee.
In addition to having the presidential primary on it, the April 7 ballot includes races for state Supreme Court, Milwaukee mayor, Milwaukee County executive and other offices.
In a Friday filing ahead of the ruling, the attorney for the Elections Commission argued changing the voting rules just before the election could create voter confusion.
Reinstating the online system that allows people to request absentee ballot would take up to three days and could result in problems with Wisconsin’s elections systems, according to the state. Ordinarily, the state doesn’t make changes to its computer systems in the run-up to an election to avoid glitches.
Conley, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, downplayed those concerns and ruled the state must allow people to go online to register to vote until March 30.
People cannot request absentee ballots unless they are registered to vote. Conley noted under the existing rules those who were not registered to vote would face a difficult choice in the midst of a health crisis — “either venture into public spaces, contrary to public directives and health guidelines, or stay at home and lose the opportunity to vote.”
His ruling gives those people a chance to vote without leaving their homes.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers praised the decision.
“I’ve always believed we need more access to democracy, not less, and am pleased to see the court take steps to ensure we can hold a fair, safe election,” he said in a statement. “I continue to encourage all Wisconsinites to request an absentee ballot.”
Republicans who have opposed the lawsuit did not immediately react to the ruling.
Absentee ballot requests rising
In addition to being able to register online, people can sign up to vote in clerk’s offices until April 3 and at the polls on election day. Democrats say that is impractical for many people because health officials are telling people to stay home as much as possible.
Under the law, voters have until April 2 to request absentee ballots online. They can do that in their clerk’s office, by mail or at myvote.wi.gov.
Clerks are urging people to request absentee ballots as soon as possible to help them keep up with an onslaught of requests.
Wisconsin allows people to vote absentee for any reason. They don’t have to be out of town or give an excuse for voting absentee.
As of Friday, more than 380,000 people had requested absentee ballots. That’s more than all absentee ballots that were cast in the 2016 presidential primary.
Louisiana, Georgia and Ohio over the last week postponed their presidential primaries because of the pandemic. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has not supported doing that in part because the terms for many local offices begin later in April.
And the Democratic governor contends he could not change the date of the election even if he thought doing so was a good idea.
“My ability to move that date is nonexistent,” he told reporters in a conference call Friday. “Moving this date is not going to solve the problem. We could move it to June. (The coronavirus outbreak) could be worse in June.”
With their lawsuit, the Democrats also asked Conley to allow absentee ballots to be counted if they arrive after election day and allow people to vote absentee without providing a photo ID. Conley declined those requests but left open the possibility he would reconsider the issues later.
The Democrats want absentee ballots to be counted as long as they arrive by April 17. Ordinarily, absentee ballots must be received by the time polls close at 8 p.m. on election day.
Republicans who control the Legislature have sought to join the lawsuit so they can argue rules for the election should not be changed. They asked Conley to throw out the case Friday, saying the Democrats had not provided sufficient evidence that the election could be conducted under the state’s long-standing protocols.
Also Friday, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee and state Republican Party told the court they planned to try to intervene in the case as well.
Conley hasn’t said yet whether he will let lawmakers, the RNC or the state Republican Party join the case. But last year he barred GOP lawmakers from participating in a lawsuit over the state’s abortion laws. An appeals court upheld the decision to keep lawmakers out of that case, ruling that it would create an “intractable procedural mess” to have Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul’s office and lawmakers both defending state laws.
Kaul has walled himself off from the absentee voting case because he participated in a challenge to Wisconsin’s voting laws before he was attorney general. The Democrats in the absentee voting case are represented by Perkins Coie, the firm where Kaul worked before at the time.
Also Friday, Evers’ top attorney told the Elections Commission that the Wisconsin National Guard was working with volunteer groups and businesses to recruit poll workers. If it can’t find them through those sources, the governor will call up the Guard to help at the polls, chief counsel Ryan Nilsestuen wrote in a letter to the commission.
The Evers administration is also helping clerks secure hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to keep polling sites safe, he wrote.
Nilsestuen was responding to a letter from the commission’s director, Meagan Wolfe, who pleaded for help.
“Voters should not have to choose between voting or staying healthy,” Wolfe wrote. “Poll workers should not have to choose between serving their community or staying healthy. Our local election officials should not have to choose between facilitating democracy or staying healthy.”
You can find out who your legislators are and how to contact them here: https://maps.legis.wisconsin.gov/
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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