MADISON – Five voters asked a judge Wednesday to rule that absentee ballots that Madison poll workers are collecting in more than 200 parks will be counted.
Madison on Saturday held its first “Democracy in the Park” event, despite accusations from Republicans that the program was improper. The city plans to do the same again this Saturday.
Five supporters of the plan on Wednesday asked Dane County Circuit Judge Mario White to declare the event a valid way for voters to return their completed absentee ballots.
City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl scheduled the events to help deal with a flood of absentee ballots that voters have requested because of the coronavirus pandemic. The city hasn’t yet installed ballot drop boxes and some voters are reluctant to return their absentee ballots by mail because of slowdowns with the U.S. Postal Service, Witzel-Behl said last week.
Late last week, an attorney for Republican lawmakers raised objections to the events, claimed they were illegal and argued absentee ballots submitted at them could be invalidated. The voters who brought Wednesday’s lawsuit dispute those claims and want the judge to assure voters that their absentee ballots will be counted.
More than 10,000 absentee ballots were returned at the first event, according to the city.
Madison is a Democratic center of power and key to Joe Biden’s strategy to beat President Donald Trump in Wisconsin. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016.
The voters brought their lawsuit against the city’s Board of Canvassers, but the board may not want to contest what the voters are seeking. City Attorney Michael Haas said he is reviewing the lawsuit.
“As you would expect, of course we believe the event should continue on Saturday,” he said by email.
The lawsuit was brought by voters who are worried that absentee ballots they submitted or planned to submit at the events won’t be counted, as well as by voters who decided not to submit them because they contend they “have been intimidated by the threat of litigation” made by Republicans.
Republicans contend the “Democracy in the Park” events are too much like in-person early voting, which isn’t allowed under state law until Oct. 20.
Haas, a former director of the state Elections Commission, rejected that argument because voters aren’t being issued ballots at the event. All they can do is return absentee ballots that they have already received through the mail.
The threat to sue to stop ballots from being counted was made by Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for two top Republicans, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau.
Separately, the state Republican Party recruited volunteers to observe last Saturday’s event. So far, they have not seen a reason to bring a lawsuit of their own, said Andrew Hitt, the party’s chairman.
“As long as they follow those rules we will not be going to court on that,” Hitt said Wednesday. “But I’ll tell you I had a litigation team in place and ready on Saturday to take whatever facts and evidence that election observers had and called in with. And we would have been ready to be in court seeking an injunction within minutes, certainly within an hour, of any widespread violations of the law. We obviously didn’t see that. We didn’t file an action.”
Republicans will be watching this Saturday’s event as well, he said.
The event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in every Madison park. The poll workers will be wearing face masks, regularly sanitizing their hands and disinfecting pens and clipboards to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the city.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.