Attorneys try to block suit seeking to stop in-person voting
The legal fight over how to conduct Wisconsin’s spring election intensified Thursday as the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit looking to ease absentee voting requirements and Republicans tried to block an action seeking to move to a mail-only footing.
The election, which features the state’s presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races is scheduled for April 7. Several states have postponed their primaries in an effort to protect voters and poll workers from the coronavirus, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has refused to take any action besides urging people to stay away from the polls and vote by absentee ballot.
The governor has said delaying the election could leave local offices vacant for weeks. Terms for most local offices expire in mid-April, just weeks after Election Day. It also appears that Evers lacks the authority to reschedule the election; according to the Legislature’s attorneys, he can’t unilaterally change state statutes establishing election dates and protocols even on an emergency footing.
The city of Green Bay filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday arguing that fears of the virus have driven poll workers to quit and the city can’t possibly conduct in-person elections and maintain social distancing. The lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge William Griesbach to cancel in-person voting, allow the city to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters and give local clerks until June 2 to count the absentee ballots. Under current law, voters must return absentee ballots to clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
The city of Neenah moved to join the lawsuit Thursday.
Eric McLeod, an attorney representing the state Republican Party, and Ryan Walsh, an attorney representing Republican legislators, tried to persuade Griesbach during a conference call to dismiss the lawsuit.
McLeod argued that most municipalities across Wisconsin are moving ahead with the election as planned and that Griesbach lacks jurisdiction because the city has failed to assert any federal law has been broken.
Walsh maintained that municipalities are creatures of the state and therefore can’t sue it. They’re not citizens or people with rights, he said.
The city hasn’t shown there’s been any undue burden placed on voting, pointing out that unlike other states Wisconsin doesn’t require voters to provide a reason to vote absentee and that absentee voting has been going on for weeks.
Andrew Phillips, an attorney for the Wisconsin Counties Association, which wants to join the lawsuit, argued that every member of every county board is up for election and that their terms end in mid-April. If the election is delayed, they would have to leave office without a successor, leaving a hole in government.
Vanessa Chavez, Green Bay’s city attorney, tried to fight back. She insisted that the coronavirus has made in-person voting too dangerous. Mailing ballots would ensure everyone gets one before the crisis deepens even further.
Clerks are already dealing with a backlog of requests for ballots and would need more time to get them out and get them back, she said, adding that there are ways to ensure board members remain in office until their successors are elected. She didn’t elaborate.
She complained that nobody, including Evers, state election officials and the Legislature, has done anything to help local clerks conduct the election under such unprecedented circumstances.
“Nobody has come up with a solution,” she said. “We’re asking you to help us figure this out.”
Griesbach said he would issue a decision by Monday.
“I recognize the importance of the issues, the urgency of it, the difficulty of it,” he said.
The League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans opened another legal front Thursday with their own federal lawsuit in Madison. That filing asks a judge to lift the requirement that absentee voters must have a witness sign their ballots.
The requirement is a significant barrier to absentee voting for people who are in quarantine or who live alone, especially in light of Evers’ stay-at-home order this week. According to the lawsuit, more than 675,000 people in the state live in single-person households.
U.S. District Judge William Conley is contemplating a third federal lawsuit, this one brought by the Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic Party.
They want the judge to lift requirements for new registrants to supply copies of proof-of-residency documents and for people to include copies of photo IDs with absentee ballot applications. Clerks also be allowed to accept absentee ballots for at least 10 days following the election, the lawsuit demands; currently, ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and arrive in clerks’ offices by 8 p.m. that day.
Conley on Friday issued a preliminary injunction reinstating online and mail-in registration and extending the deadline to Monday. He refused to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the proof-of-residency, photo ID requirements and extending the date for receiving absentee ballots, but the case continues.
Republicans have asked Conley for permission to join the lawsuit. They contend that they should be allowed to protect their constituents from last-minute changes in voting laws and they would be forced to spend substantial resources combating the “inevitable confusion” resulting from any changes.