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Judge Unsure If Virus Requires Changes To Wisconsin Election

Maayan Silver
Poll workers talk with a voter during early voting at the Zeidler Municipal Building in the April 7 election, which took place during the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal judge on Wednesday questioned whether it would be right to order an easing of Wisconsin's absentee voting regulations ahead of the November presidential election, saying the coronavirus might pose less of a threat to in-person voting by then.

Democrats and allied groups filed a series of lawsuits ahead of Wisconsin's presidential primary election in April demanding that Judge William Conley ease absentee voting and voter registration requirements to simplify voting by mail because of the pandemic. Conley decided to extend the deadlines for requesting and filing absentee ballots, but conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the extensions the day before the election.

The plaintiffs renewed their lawsuits for the November election. Wisconsin is expected to be a key battleground state in Democrat Joe Biden's bid to unseat Republican President Donald Trump, who won the state in 2016 by just 22,748 votes.

>>How To Vote In Milwaukee During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Conley held a hearing Wednesday on whether to issue a preliminary injunction easing the regulations. He opened the proceeding by acknowledging that clerks will see a crush of absentee ballots ahead of the November election. But he went on to say that people have learned more about how to control the virus' spread since April, that infection rates could drop by November and that it's unclear if the risk of transmission will be as high as it was in April. Given that, he said wasn't sure he should interfere with existing state law.

“Granted, things could worsen. But it's possible things may improve in our state, particularly if people more universally accept the limitations necessary to prevent spread,” he said. “A federal court has a limited role in these matters and having more time, I'm not sure I'm at a point where I can say in-person voting won't be practical. I'm not sure the current status of COVID-19 gets you there.”

John Devaney, an attorney for the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic Party, argued that that anyone with influence over the election has a duty to prepare for the virus.

He noted that Wisconsin recorded 728 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and the Wisconsin Elections Commission has warned that local clerks were still looking more than 900 poll workers heading into a Tuesday primary for state candidates, blaming the shortage on fears of infection at the polls. Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday activated National Guard troops to serve as poll workers, just as he did in April. The troops will report to local clerks on Monday.

“The evidence is in front of us,” Devaney said.

Misha Tseytlin, an attorney representing Republican legislators, argued that there's so much uncertainty that Conley should presume state laws remain valid and do nothing.

The Democrats and their allies are seeking an injunction that would lift requirements that clerks receive absentee ballots by 8 p.m. on election night; that absentee ballots be signed by a witness; that voters include a photo ID with their absentee ballot applications; and that electronic and by-mail voter registrations include proof of residence.

They also want the judge to lift by-mail and electronic voter registration deadlines — the deadline for the Nov. 3 election is Oct. 14. And they want Conley to force state elections officials to send absentee ballots to everyone registered to vote as of Sept. 30 and to allow voters to download absentee ballots via email or fax.

The groups also want the judge to allow clerks to start verifying absentee ballots’ validity without counting them before Election Day in the hopes that they will spot mistakes and give voters time to fix them and refile their ballots. The groups also claim that early processing will expedite counting and election results.

Conley wasn't expected to rule on the preliminary injunction for several weeks.

Health officials reported 884 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nine more deaths from the disease in Wisconsin on Wednesday. The state has had 56,940 confirmed cases and 970 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic started.

Nearly 1,002,000 people had been tested for the disease as of Wednesday, a little less than a sixth of the state's population.

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