Appeals court allows extension of Wisconsin’s absentee ballot deadlines

MADISON – An appeals court agreed Wednesday to give Wisconsin voters more time to return their absentee ballots in the Nov. 3 presidential election, finding Republicans didn’t have the authority to challenge them.

The unanimous ruling from a 3-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago means absentee ballots that arrive in municipal clerks’ offices after election day, can be counted as long as they are postmarked by then.

The decision is a victory for Democrats who asked to loosen election rules during the coronavirus pandemic and a setback for Republicans who tried to prevent any changes to them. 

Republicans can ask the appeals court to consider the matter further or try to get the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. If it gets to the high court, it will likely arrive there when the court is short one justice because of the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The caseis being watched nationally because Wisconsin is one of the top battlegrounds in the race between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016. 

The ruling came down just hours before Trump and Biden were to debate for the first time. 

U.S. District Judge William Conley last week issued a decision that altered a number of Wisconsin’s election laws because of the pandemic. 

He gave people an extra week to register to vote through the mail or through the state’s myvote.wi.gov website. The new deadline is Oct. 21 instead of Oct. 14.

He also ruled poll workers could serve in any community, not just those in the county where they live. That will make it easier for election officials to staff polling sites, which has been difficult during the pandemic. 

Conley’s ruling also allowed voters to get replacement absentee ballots by email if the ones they request through the mail are not delivered on time. 

The most significant part of Conley’s ruling allows absentee ballots that arrive as late as Nov. 9 to be counted so long as they are postmarked by election day. Normally, absentee ballots in Wisconsin can be counted only if they are in clerks’ hands by the time polls close. 

Republican state lawmakers, the state Republican Party and the Republican National Committee appealed the decision. 

The appeals court ruled Wednesday none of them had the authority to challenge Conley’s decision because they had not been harmed by it. The state and national arms of the Republican Party, for instance, “do not suffer any injury caused by the judgment,” the judges wrote in their decision. 

Lawmakers can challenge matters that directly speak to their own interests, but not other matters, the judges found.

“State legislatures must leave to the executive officials of the state, such as a governor or attorney general, the vindication of the state‚Äôs interest in the validity of enacted legislation,” they wrote. 

The state Elections Commission likely would have had the ability to appeal the decision, but the commission, which consists of three Republicans and three Democrats, did not appeal the ruling. 

This is a breaking story and will be updated. 

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