Judge won't delay Wisconsin election but extends voting

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From left Katherine Katsekes, and Diane Scott, both paid volunteers, help sort absentee ballots by ward to be opened on election day at Brookfield City Hall, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Many area communities are having a steady stream of residents voting early as concerns about the coronavirus raise questions about the upcoming April 7 election. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

MADISON, Wis. – A federal judge on Thursday declined to postpone Wisconsin's presidential primary as the coronavirus spreads, but he ordered that people be given an extra six days beyond Tuesday's election for absentee voting.

U.S. District Judge William Conley blasted state leaders' decision not to delay the election to protect people's health but refused to postpone it himself, saying a federal judge shouldn't act as the state's health officer.

“As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards. Nor is it appropriate for a federal district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them,” Conley wrote.

The deadline for voters to get absentee ballots to local clerks had been 8 p.m. on Tuesday, but Conley's order shifted that to 4 p.m. on April 13. Conley also extended the deadline for voters to request ballots by a day to 5 p.m. this Friday.

The judge also lifted a witness requirement for absentee ballot applications, writing that voters can provide a written affirmation that they could not safely obtain a witness signature due to coronavirus fears.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin said it has appealed the ruling to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking it to stay the order. The Republican National Committee and the party had urged Conley to allow the election to proceed as planned.

In a statement, the GOP said the judge's decision to change the date which absentee ballots can be received without any limit on the postmarked date “effectively changes the date of the election” and needs to be reviewed by the appeals court.

The ruling marks a partial victory for Democrats and liberal groups who argued that thousands of voters might be disenfranchised because time is running out to file absentee ballots. The party and the groups had filed three lawsuits demanding that Conley postpone in-person voting, extend the deadlines for filing absentee ballots and lift requirements that absentee voters supply photo IDs with their ballot applications and get a witness to sign the ballot before returning it.