Judge holds off on ruling on Madison’s ‘Democracy in the Park’ plan

Voters turn in their absentee ballots to poll workers stationed in James Madison Park in Madison, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2020. A Dane County judge has ruled that Madison officials can legally collect absentee ballots in city parks. The city clerk's office placed poll workers in every city park on Sept. 26 to collect ballots.

MADISON – A judge held off Friday on issuing an assurance to voters that absentee ballots collected in Madison parks this fall will be counted. 

State and local officials have said the ballot-collecting plan is appropriate and legal, but Republican lawmakers have questioned its validity. 

At issue is the “Democracy in the Park” events that Madison is putting on to help people with voting.

At them, poll workers stationed in more than 200 locations around the liberal city are available to accept absentee ballots that voters have received through the mail; show voters how they can request absentee ballots; or help them register to vote. 

Republican lawmakers have suggested they might sue to invalidate ballots collected at the events.

RELATED:Bice: Republicans issue warning about having Bango, Bernie Brewer or Racing Sausages at early voting locations

That prompted five Madison voters who support the events to ask Dane County Circuit Judge Mario White to declare the events are legal and properly completed ballots submitted at them would be counted. 

White said he wasn’t ready to do that at a hearing Friday — not because he questioned the propriety of the events, but because the city and those who brought the lawsuit are in agreement. 

The voters sued Madison’s Board of Canvassers, which supports the events. Typically, lawsuits must involve adverse parties.

“This seems like a one-sided lawsuit,” White said.

Signs direct people where to park for early in-person voting at the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building in Milwaukee for the August 2020 primary.

He called for more briefing and said he would consider the issue further next week. By then, the “Democracy in the Park” events will have ended. 

Madison collected about 10,800 absentee ballots at the first set of events, held Sept. 26. The second and final set is to occur from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. 

The city scheduled the events to help deal with a flood of absentee ballot requests during the coronavirus pandemic. Some voters are worried about returning their ballots by mail because of problems with the postal service and the city has not yet installed ballot drop boxes. 

Republicans question the effort because state law doesn’t allow in-person early voting to begin until Oct. 20.

City officials and Meagan Wolfe, the head of the state Elections Commission, have said the events don’t include a form of early voting because poll workers are not issuing ballots. Instead, they are accepting ones that voters have already received through the mail. 

The push against Madison’s plans came from the state Republican Party and an attorney for the Legislature’s top two Republicans, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau. 

The Republican Party plans to have observers at this Saturday’s events.

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