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Federal Judge Blocks Effort To Delay Wisconsin Election Over Coronavirus

State GOP Files New Lawsuit Against Dane County Clerk Over Coronavirus Guidance

Woman at a voting place
Election voting booths. Darren Hauck/AP Photo

A federal judge ruled Friday to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the city of Green Bay that attempted to force a delay of Wisconsin’s April 7 election amid the continued spread of the new coronavirus in Wisconsin.

The lawsuit argued election officials across the state cannot effectively and safely administer the April 7 election as scheduled during the pandemic. It cited concerns about the health of clerks, poll workers and voters.

Judge William C. Griesbach dismissed the case on the grounds that a municipality could not bring such a challenge against the state.

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“The court’s decision is not intended to minimize the serious difficulties the City and its officials are facing in attempting to conduct the upcoming election,” Griesbach wrote. “The court is saying only that the City and its mayor are not the proper parties to bring such a claim in federal court.”

Griesbach noted another federal case seeking to delay the election was brought by a coalition of advocacy groups. He said those groups may have the standing necessary to bring such a challenge.

Three other federal cases challenging the election are still in the courts. They were brought by the state and national Democratic parties, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and a coalition of groups representing minority communities.

State GOP Files State Lawsuit Against Dane County Clerk

Just hours before the federal ruling, another lawsuit was filed related to the election in state court.

The new lawsuit, brought by the Republican Party of Wisconsin, argues Dane and Milwaukee County clerks have been providing illegal guidance to voters about circumventing the state’s voter ID law amid the pandemic.

The clerks have been advising voters confined during the virus’ spread to indicate they are “indefinitely confined” on their absentee ballot application, which allows them to bypass a requirement to include a copy of a valid ID for voting with their application.

Republicans have said the clerks are encouraging too many people to utilize the option.

The lawsuit was filed with the state Supreme Court on Friday evening, asking Wisconsin’s highest court to take the case immediately, on “original action,” rather than allowing the lawsuit to work its way through lower courts first.

In a prepared statement, state Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said the party is standing up for the integrity of Wisconsin elections.

“While some clerks have effectively managed the current crisis, other clerks are unilaterally rewriting our state’s election laws and encouraging other clerks around the state to follow suit,” Hitt said.

Members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission sparred over the conflict during a Friday evening meeting.

Commissioner Bob Spindell, who was appointed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, accused the clerks of directing voters to “lie” in order to avoid the state’s voter ID requirement.

Spindell said people, including the elderly, who have had trouble navigating the technology necessary to upload a copy of their ID should be able to figure the process out, with the help of election officials, advocacy groups or political parties, if necessary.

“I think people can figure that out,” Spindell said. “I’m sure the people can figure this out.”

Commissioner Mark Thomsen, who was appointed by Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, pushed back on that.

What we have is elderly, at risk people, who have been the backbone of voters, and we should be doing everything we can to let them vote safely,” Thomsen said. “We shouldn’t be accusing them of fraud.”

In a memo released before Friday’s meeting, commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said the commission doesn’t condone using the option simply as a means of circumventing the voter ID law.

However, Wolfe said voters may decide for themselves if they are indefinitely confined.

“Designation of indefinitely confined status is for each individual voter to make based upon their current circumstance,” she wrote.

Commissioners voted to approve that language as official commission guidance. They declined to approve additional guidance that said voters could indicate they are indefinitely confined if they have a photo ID but do not “have the technology to upload a copy or access to a printer or scanner to provide a copy of their ID.”

Additional Funds Requested For Equipment, Voter Education Campaign

Wolfe’s memo also shared an update that the commission has spent about $138,000 in federal money on supplies for election officials, including additional absentee ballot envelopes and nearly 6,000 bottles of ethyl alcohol for cleaning at election sites.

The commission staff requested commissioners’ approval to use up to another $200,000 in additional federal money, provided through election security grants, for things including 1.5 million pens to send to clerks around the state, so voters don’t have to re-use writing utensils at the ballot box. Commissioners approved the request unanimously.

The memo also outlined a proposed public relations campaign, estimated to cost about $248,000, aimed at encouraging people to request mail-in ballots for the election. The campaign would include social media advertisements on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.

Commission Offers Clerks Guidance On Administering Election Amid Pandemic

The commission memo also included guidance documents, prepared with help from state public health officials, for clerks to use on and in preparation for Election Day.

The guidance includes facility recommendations, like keeping polling place doors open to minimize touching of knobs and handles. It also recommends screening questions for poll workers, to make sure they don’t work if they have shown symptoms of COVID-19.

The commission also provided signage for polling places, telling voters not to enter if they have experienced symptoms like shortness of breath or coughing and reminding them to keep 6 feet of distance between themselves, other voters and poll workers, if they do enter the polling place.

The commission told clerks they are able to move polling places outside or to implement “drive-thru” voting on Election Day, if they would like.

Commission staff said “curbside voting” — different from drive-thru voting because curbside voting is something that has requirements already written into state law, having been provided for voters with disabilities for years — cannot be offered to every voter.

The commission also provided guidance, written in consultation with a public health official, on a process that may be used to ferry ballots between individuals who are quarantined at home and their local clerk’s office, as well as a process for individuals who live alone to safely get the required signature on their absentee ballot.