Voting booths at the Doyle Administration Building, a polling place on election day in Madison, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Wisconsin may not know until mid-April who won the presidential primary or a seat on the state Supreme Court after a federal judge pushed back until April 13 the deadline for absentee ballots to be received and counted in the spring election.

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic — and again bemoaning the failure of the Gov. Tony Evers and Legislature to delay the election as other states have — U.S. Judge William Conley relaxed requirements for absentee ballots as Wisconsin voters have requested them in record numbers.

Conley refused to push back the election in Thursday’s ruling, finding it wouldn’t be appropriate for a federal judge despite the failure of Capitol leaders to act in light of the health risks to both voters and poll workers.

Instead, he:

*extended until 4 p.m. April 13 the deadline for absentee ballots to be received so they can be counted for the election. State law normally requires those ballots to be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

*pushed back to 5 p.m. tomorrow the deadline to request an absentee ballot. That deadline had been today.

*enjoined the state from requiring those voting absentee to have a witness sign the envelope in which they return the ballot if they are unable to do so safely. Those who don’t include a witness signature on their ballot envelopes must include an affirmation or other statement why they weren’t able to safely meet the requirement. It will be left to local clerks whether to accept the voter’s reasons for not completing the witness certification requirement.

Conley also didn’t add a new requirement for when ballots must be postmarked. That means ballots mailed after Tuesday’s election will still count so long as local clerks receive them by the new April 13 deadline.

April 13 is also the deadline for municipal boards of canvas to certify their election results to the county. Conley noted in his ruling the Wisconsin Elections Commission indicated locals would still be able to meet that deadline if he pushed back the cut off for receiving absentee ballots to 4 p.m. that day.

State Dem Chair Ben Wikler praised the ruling as a “victory for voters, for public health, and for democracy itself.” The state and national parties were among those who filed suit seeking changes to the election in light of the outbreak. Conley combined three lawsuits into one with today’s ruling covering all of their requests.

Conley refused several requests, including one to suspend enforcement of voter ID.

The state and national Republican parties, which intervened in the suit, had asked him to stay any ruling so it could be appealed. But Conley declined, writing “the relief being granted is not of the sweeping nature sought by plaintiffs” and the most significant orders he issued don’t kick in until Election Day.

The state GOP was still reviewing the ruling late Thursday, a spokeswoman said.

During a Wednesday hearing, Conley was harshly critical of Evers and the Legislature for not delaying the election as another dozen states have.

In Thursday’s ruling, he praised the “truly heroic efforts” of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, its staff and local clerks. He said those officials have been “improvising in real time” in the face of a burgeoning health crisis, the loss of poll workers, fear of sickness and inadequate resources.

He wrote the guv and Legislature appeared to be hoping those election officials and voters willing to ignore the health risks to themselves “will thread the needle to produce a reasonable voter turnout and no increase in the dissemination of COVID-19.”

Conley suggested that outcome was unlikely.

“As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards,” Conley wrote in explaining his decision not to delay the election. “Nor is it appropriate for a federal district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them.”

Read the ruling here.

Note: This item has been updated with additional details and reaction.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email