Updated at 4:26 p.m. CT
A federal judge ruled Monday that absentee ballots in battleground Wisconsin can be counted up to six days after the Nov. 3 presidential election as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
The highly anticipated ruling, unless overturned, means that the outcome of the presidential race in Wisconsin might not be known for days after polls close. Under current law, the deadline for returning an absentee ballot to have it counted is 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Democrats and their allies sued to extend the deadline in the key swing state.
U.S. District Judge William Conley granted a large portion of their requests, issuing a preliminary injunction that was expected to be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He put the ruling on hold for seven days to give the other side a chance to seek an emergency appeal.
In Wisconsin’s April presidential primary, Conley also extended the deadline for returning absentee ballots for a week. In that election, nearly 7% of all ballots cast were returned the week after polls closed.
In 2016, the presidential race was decided in Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point — fewer than 23,000 votes.
Polls show Democrat Joe Biden with a slight lead, but both sides are expecting another tight race. Biden wrapped up a campaign stop in northeast Wisconsin about an hour before the ruling was released. Trump held a rally in the state last week.
The Republican National Committee, the Wisconsin GOP and Wisconsin’s Republican legislators argued that current absentee voting regulations should be left in place, saying people have plenty of time to obtain ballots and get them back to clerks by Election Day.
The Democratic National Committee, the state Democratic Party and groups including the League of Women Voters and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a series of lawsuits to make absentee voting and registration easier so people won’t have to go to the polls and risk catching the coronavirus.
Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the state GOP, had no immediate comment on Monday's ruling. Attorneys for others involved with the lawsuit did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Conley, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, also agreed with Democrats to lift the Oct. 14 deadline for by-mail and electronic voter registration. The judge extended it until Oct. 21. Conley further ruled that poll workers can work in any county, not just in the one where they live. Clerks have reported a shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic, and loosening the residency rules could make it easier to fill slots.
Even though he extended the deadlines to register and return ballots, Conley urged voters to cast them as soon as possible.
Conley cited the huge amount of expected absentee ballots, as well as the system’s reliance on the U.S. Postal service, "which has and continues to face its own challenges."
"While the exact trajectory of COVID-19 in Wisconsin is unknown, the unrebutted public health evidence in the record demonstrates that COVID-19 will continue to persist, and may worsen, through November," Conley wrote. "Recent outbreaks, particularly among Wisconsin college students, and the onset of flu season continue to complicate assessments. For example, concern remains that the significant new infections reported on reopened college campuses may spread into the community."
Wisconsin has reported 345 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, meaning it ranks third in the country for new cases per capita. The state had nearly 102,500 total cases as of Monday and 1,244 deaths.
The judge said that in-person voting in November will continue to pose a health risk due to COVID-19.
"At minimum, the evidence continues to suggest that a large election day turnout will stretch safety protocols and increase risk of transmission particularly to poll workers, which is why [the Wisconsin Elections Commission] has continued to promote voting by mail," Conley wrote.