Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

A federal appeals court Friday night denied emergency requests from Republicans to stay a judge’s ruling pushing back to April 13 the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned in Wisconsin’s spring election.

The 7th Court of Appeals also rejected a request from GOP lawmakers as well as the state and national Republican parties to stay Judge William Conley’s order that gave Wisconsin voters an additional day to request absentee ballots in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to the guv issuing a stay-at-home order for the state. That order had pushed the deadline to 5 p.m. today.

But the appeals court put on hold one piece of Conley’s ruling. He had ordered clerks to accept absentee ballots without a witness statement if voters submitted a statement explaining why they couldn’t safely obtain a signature from someone else on the envelope they used to mail back the ballot.

The court ruled Conley didn’t give enough weight to the state’s interest in enforcing that requirement to prevent fraud. It also noted the Wisconsin Elections Commission had posted guidance for voters struggling to safely find a witness for their ballot in light of the public health emergency.

“With the absentee ballot receipt date being extended to April 13, 2020, voters have more time to take advantage of one or another of the Commission’s suggestions for obtaining a signature,” the court wrote. “So, too, do we have every reason to believe the Commission, in keeping with the forward-leaning action it has taken thus far to accommodate voters’ interests while also striving to ensure their safety, will continue to consider yet other ways for voters to satisfy the statutory signature requirement (if possible, for example, by maintaining the statutory presence requirement but not requiring the witness’s physical signature).”

Conley has also rejected the state Legislature’s motion to intervene in the suit. But the 7th Circuit overturned that decision.

Republicans still have the option to appeal Conley’s decision on the merits or to take the emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said they were pleased the 7th Circuit upheld the witness requirement for absentee ballots and accept that clerks will need more time to tally votes with requests for absentee ballots topping 1.1 million by Thursday.

“We still have grave concerns about election security by allowing votes to be postmarked or submitted after Election Day, and plan to appeal that issue to the United States Supreme Court,” they said.

The state and national Dem parties were part of the original suits that led to Conley’s decision.

“This decision has ensured Wisconsin voters will have their voice count at this critical moment for our state,” state Dem spokeswoman Courtney Beyer said of the appeals court ruling.

The state GOP didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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