MADISON – A federal judge this week extended voter registration and absentee ballot deadlines for Wisconsin because of the coronavirus pandemic, but with an appeal likely, the rules could change again.
Here are five takeaways from the ruling by U.S. District Judge William Conley.
The ruling isn’t in effect yet
Anticipating an appeal was likely, Conley stayed his decision for a week. That means it won’t go into effect until Sep. 28 at the earliest, and Conley or an appeals court could suspend it for longer.
And, of course, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court could make any number of modifications to his ruling in the weeks ahead.
Elections officials and Republicans who fought the lawsuit so far have not filed any appeals but could do so in the coming days. They have said they are reviewing Conley’s decision.
Voters should pay attention to the news, the state Elections Commission and their local clerk to make sure they know the current rules for voting.
It’s all about the postmarks
The most significant part of Conley’s ruling stated that clerks could count absentee ballots they receive by Nov. 9, provided that they are postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3. Ordinarily, ballots are counted only if they are in clerks’ hands by the time polls close.
The rules Conley set are similar to ones the courts put in place for the April election for state Supreme Court when clerks could count ballots that arrived in the week after the polls closed if they were postmarked by Election Day.
Conley had initially ruled all absentee ballots received in the week after Election Day in April could be counted, even if they weren’t postmarked or were put in the mail after Election Day. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked his ruling in part and put into effect a postmark requirement.
Conley recognized that Supreme Court ruling in his latest decision and set his own postmark requirement for the November election.
In the spring, clerks discovered that many absentee ballots did not have postmarks or had illegible postmarks, making it difficult to know what to do with them. Conley wrote in his latest decision that clerks should err on the side of counting ballots unless there is evidence a ballot was mailed after Election Day.
Election results will be available election night — just not all of them
Clerks will be able to report their results as soon as the polls close, as they normally do. That’s a departure from April when they were barred from tallying their results for a week as they waited for the last absentee ballots to be returned.
While voters will begin to get results on the night of the election, as they typically do, they might not know the outcome if the race is tight. That’s because thousands of ballots will likely come in during the week after the election.
Some voters may get ballots by email
Conley ruled he would allow some voters to receive their ballots by email because of potential mail problems.
Voters who request absentee ballots on time shouldn’t be punished if the U.S. Postal Service is slow to get them their ballot, he ruled. As a failsafe, he said those who do not receive absentee ballots through the mail that they requested must be allowed to get them through email or a website.
The voters would have to return the absentee ballots by mail or in person — not over the web.
Voters have more time to register to vote by mail or over the web
Conley also extended by a week the deadline for registering to vote through the mail or through the state’s online portal, myvote.wi.gov. He pushed the deadline back from Oct. 14 to Oct. 21.
Voters can register in clerks’ offices until Oct. 30. They can also register at the polls on Election Day.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.