Two more lawsuits filed over Wisconsin’s spring election seeking to change how and when people vote during coronavirus

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MADISON – Wisconsin’s chaotic spring election got even more unpredictable Thursday as two new lawsuits were filed attempting to alter voting rules because of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced people to stay at home.

The lawsuits — the third and fourth to be filed over the April 7 election — come as clerks scramble to figure out how to safely run an election when they are short on poll workers and hand sanitizer and health officials say people should stay at least six feet from each other.

One of the new lawsuits, led by voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, seeks to put off the election for weeks or months. It’s in line with a lawsuit Green Bay’s clerk filed this week to postpone the election.

The other suit filed Thursday seeks to allow people to cast absentee ballots without having to get a witness to sign their voting certificate.

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The barrage of litigation comes after the Democratic National Committee sued last week to try to extend absentee voting. That resulted in an order that reinstated online voter registration until March 30. U.S. District Judge William Conley will rule later on other aspects of that case.

On the April 7 ballot is the presidential primary, a victims rights amendment to the state constitution and a seat on the state Supreme Court. Also up for election are local offices around the state, including Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.

A crush of lawsuits

The situation is a reminder of a political truism: moments of historic upheaval often spawn messy legal brawls.

The coronavirus outbreak is a health crisis that has gripped the globe. But it’s also a threat to how one state runs its democracy.

There are no obvious answers about what to do. Running the election as usual puts people’s lives at risk. Postponing it and allowing officials to keep their jobs longer than their terms, even for a brief period, invokes the ghosts of authoritarian regimes.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and top Republican lawmakers have found rare common ground in contending the election should stay on schedule. They’re encouraging people to vote absentee instead of at the polls.

But holding the election is not safe, according to those bringing two of the recent lawsuits.

RELATED: How to get an absentee ballot in Wisconsin during the coronavirus outbreak

Gregory Lewis, president of Souls to the Polls, this week said Evers is sending conflicting messages by trying to keep the election on track while also ordering people to stay in their homes except to perform essential tasks like buying groceries. Lewis, who has contracted coronavirus, argued the pandemic constitutes a grave risk that should force the postponement of the election.

His group and others joining the lawsuit argued problems conducting the election would fall hardest on minorities and would result in violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.

Clerks have received a flood of absentee ballot requests and have struggled to keep up with them. Madison alone had a backlog of 12,000 ballot requests as of Wednesday, according to the suit. 

“The ever-increasing volume of requests for absentee ballots is threatening to overwhelm the staff available to the (Madison) city clerk and raises the distinct possibility that thousands of voters will be unable to exercise the franchise, despite their best efforts to do so,” attorney Douglas Poland wrote in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks to postpone the election until after the coronavirus emergency is over and allow clerks to send absentee ballots to all registered voters, including those who did not request them. Those bringing the suit didn’t specify when they want the in-person election to be held, but are seeking to allow people to vote by mail until June 2.

Because the pandemic has disrupted daily life, the lawsuit also aims to temporarily waive the voter ID law, the witness requirement for absentee ballots and the requirement that people provide proof of residence to register to vote.

Bringing the lawsuit in federal court in Madison were Lewis, Souls to the Polls, Voces de la Frontera, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, an arm of the American Federation of Teachers, an arm of the Service Employees International Union and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Their arguments are in line with what Green Bay argued in its lawsuit. Just 54 of that city’s 278 poll workers have agreed to help with this election, and the city hasn’t been able to secure cleaning supplies it needs to protect voters and staff.

Fast-changing guidance from the state about how to run the election hasn’t helped, the Green Bay lawsuit argues. Some election-day activities require poll workers to get close to people despite advice from medical experts that they should stay at least six feet away from others.

An initial decision in that case is expected as soon as Monday. 

State officials have repeatedly said they don’t want to change the date of the election or limit it to mail only.

“That seems to me it would really undermine the election if we don’t let the process to continue as we are,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester. 

Some voters don’t want to vote by mail, said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

“I think there’s certain group of citizens as well that have voted at the polls on election day for many, many years,” the Juneau Republican said. “And that’s what their expectation is. They’re not going to go online and request a ballot.”

Republican lawmakers have said officials are finding creative ways to deal with unusual circumstances.

Vos raised the idea of having clerks give voters their own pens so they don’t have to use ones that have been touched by others. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna said he was donating hand sanitizer to polling sites across his district. 

The county clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties this week advised voters that they didn’t have to provide a copy of a photo ID to get an absentee ballot if they determined the threat of coronavirus had rendered them indefinitely confined.

They said it was a way to make sure everyone stuck in their home could get a ballot, but conservatives called it an attempt to circumvent the voter ID law. The state Republican Party raised the prospect of suing over the issue. 

The other lawsuit filed Thursday challenged the requirement that absentee voters get a witness to certify their ballots. They argued that policy violates the constitutional rights of those who are quarantined and cannot get someone to sign the certificates.

It was brought in federal court in Madison by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Alliance of Retired Americans and four voters who are quarantined and say they can’t meet the witness requirement.

You can find out who your legislators are and how to contact them here: https://maps.legis.wisconsin.gov/

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

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