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Wisconsin won't move next week's primary, despite COVID-19 threat

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A federal judge ruled against postponing Wisconsin's April 7 primary but is giving voters an additional six days to turn in absentee ballots. On Thursday, Judge William Conley extended the deadline to turn in absentee ballots from 9:00 p.m. ET on April 7 to 5:00 p.m. ET on April 13 and said "the court will not add a postmarked-by date requirement." In his ruling, Conley again criticized Wisconsin leaders for not stepping up to delay the election but said it wasn't within his purview to do so.

"The only role of a federal district court is to take steps that help avoid the impingement on citizens' rights to exercise their voting franchise as protected by the United States Constitution and federal statutes," Conley wrote. "That is what the court attempts to do in this opinion and the order below, understanding that a consequence of these measures may be to further the public health crisis in this State. Unfortunately, that is beyond the power of this court to control."

Thursday was supposed to be the final day to request absentee ballots, but Conley is giving Wisconsin voters until Friday at 6:00 p.m. ET to place those requests. As of Thursday morning, more than 1.1 million absentee ballots have been requested, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC).

During a hearing on Wednesday, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe conceded it was possible some people would not receive absentee ballots before Primary Day. According to Wolfe, the U.S. Postal Service says ballots, which are sent by First Class mail, usually take two to three days to travel through the mail, but can take up to seven.

The judge also ruled that voters who can't get a witness certification can still submit their ballots, as long as they provide a written statement that they weren't safely able to obtain one, despite "reasonable efforts to do so."

On Thursday night, the Republican National Committee and Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a notice that they intend to appeal the judge's decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The court's decision to change the date when absentee ballots can be received without any limitation on the postmark effectively changes the date of the election," Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Andrew Hitt wrote on Twitter. "Such a substantial decision normally left to our elected officials requires the review of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. We hope the appeals court defers to the Wisconsin legislative and executive branches and stays the district court's decision."

The ruling is a partial victory for Democratic groups, who had sued to postpone in-person voting, extend absentee deadlines and waive requirements for submitting a photo ID with absentee applications and getting the witness signature to submit a ballot. Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler called the ruling a "victory for voters, for public health, and for democracy itself."

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, who last Friday asked the legislature to provide absentee ballots to all registered voters, to allow ballots to be postmarked up until election day and to give clerks more time to count ballots, applauded the court's ruling.

"In the absence of the Legislature doing its part to ensure a fair and safe election, I appreciate that the court chose to implement some of the common-sense solutions that I've been advocating for," Evers said in a statement.

Wisconsin still faces major challenges for Tuesday's election, including a shortage of poll workers. A report from the WEC showed that as of Monday night jurisdictions were short 7,000 poll workers, and 111 jurisdictions didn't have enough workers to operate any polling sites. Milwaukee, a city of nearly 600,000 people, will have less than 10 polling sites on Tuesday.  

The state's governor, Tony Evers, says he will use the National Guard to help staff polling locations to make up some of the deficit of workers. In a court filing this week, a state attorney said that using National Guard personnel "will not satisfy all of the current staffing needs."

Conley's decision not to delay the election came hours after the Democratic National Committee announced it was postponing its national convention, which is scheduled to take place in Milwaukee, from July 13 to August 17 due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin is currently the only state slated to hold a primary in April, after Puerto Rico announced it would be delaying its April 26 election. Eleven states have moved their primary dates, and five states have decided to conduct their primaries or caucuses by mail only.

At the end Thursday's meeting, WEC Chair Dean Knudson argued that Wisconsin's situation is different due to the number of local officials on the ballot. He projected a fairly normal turnout, urged people to vote absentee and called on "young and healthy" people to volunteer as poll workers. 

"This election is much more important in Wisconsin than in the states that have chosen to delay their presidential primary: we're going to elect thousands of local officials," Knudson said. "And there's no evidence at all that postponing makes this election safer. But we need to figure out how to run elections safely during such a pandemic or a health crisis."

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