Democrats Sue To Change Wisconsin Election Laws Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Federal Lawsuit Calls For Extension Of Registration, Mail-In Ballot Deadlines

Magnus Manske (CC-BY-SA)

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and Democratic National Committee filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the state Elections Commission calling for changes to Wisconsin election laws amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including extensions to online voter registration and mail-in ballot return deadlines.

The groups are pushing for several changes to state election laws as voters and election officials grapple with the virus’ spread. Their lawsuit calls for:

  • Wisconsin’s March 18 deadline for online and mail voter registration to be extended until April 3.
  • The deadline for election officials’ receipt of mail-in absentee ballots to be moved from 8 p.m. Election Day to 10 days after the election, as long as the mailing was postmarked by Election Day.
  • The state to suspend its voter ID law for mail-in ballots and its requirement to provide proof of residence for online or mailed voter registration.

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The groups argue those measures would make voting more accessible amid the pandemic, which has spurred a number of major changes ahead of Election Day, including closure of early voting sites and Election Day polling places, and a state ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

The lawsuit also says many people complying with social distancing recommendations and requirements may not be able to fulfill the document requirements for voter registration or absentee ballot requests online or by mail.

To register online or by mail, prospective voters need to provide a proof of residence document, like a lease or utility bill, as they would when registering in person. They would need to print a copy of that document to include with their voter registration application by mail or have a digital copy of the document to submit their application online. To request an absentee ballot, voters must include a copy of a valid ID, like a drivers license or passport, with their absentee ballot request.

As Wisconsin citizens continue to distance themselves to ensure their safety, many will be unwilling and unable to risk their safety and the safety of others by waiting in line to register to vote and cast their vote on election day,” the lawsuit reads. “Many Wisconsin citizens also will be unwilling and unable to take on the safety risks of leaving their homes to obtain documents and to copy documents that are required under Wisconsin law to register to vote and to obtain an absentee ballot.”

Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said some Wisconsin voters have been put in a position of “(choosing) between exposure to COVID-19 and disenfranchisement.”

“Our democracy depends on our ability to conduct free, safe, and fair elections, no matter what — even during a pandemic,” Wikler said in a press release.

Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez said social distancing and measures imposed by Gov. Tony Evers through emergency order have been necessary, but noted “it’s more important than ever that we expand access to voting.”

The Elections Commission, which was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss how election officials are reacting to challenges presented by COVID-19, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. However, a memo released before their meeting outlined any changes to deadlines couldn’t be ordered by the commission itself, but would have to be made by “court intervention, an act of the Legislature, or an order of the Governor.”

The memo also notes changing deadlines “would have several administrative impacts,” including a state law requiring a postcard be sent within 10 days to individuals who register online to verify their address. The law requires that any postcards returned as undeliverable would require individuals be removed from poll books. If the online registration deadline were moved to April 3, as the lawsuit calls for, this process likely wouldn’t be feasible by Election Day on April 7.

Ever’s spokesperson Melissa Baldauff said the governor “has been urging folks to vote by absentee ballot and believes that process should be as simple and accessible as possible.”

“Ensuring the health and safety of Wisconsinites is our top priority, but the governor has also said that our democracy must continue,” Baldauff said.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin criticized the lawsuit as a Democratic attempt to “rig the April 7 election in their favor.”

“Democrats are trying to hijack a national health crisis to rig an election in their favor,” Mark Jefferson, executive director of the party, said. “If they cared about accessibility at the polls, they’d join us in urging clerks across Wisconsin to allow early voting immediately, not just those in their communities of support. Instead, they insist on suspending common-sense rules in an effort to further rig the election.”

Under state law, each city, village and town in Wisconsin is responsible for setting the dates and hours of in-person absentee voting for their municipality.