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Appeals court refuses to block extended voting in Wisconsin

MADISON — A federal appeals court refused Friday to block extended absentee voting deadlines for Wisconsin’s presidential primary, allowing voters to continue turning in ballots for six days beyond Tuesday’s election.

U.S. District Judge William Conley on Thursday ordered absentee voting deadlines extended from Election Day on Tuesday to April 13, in effect extending the election by six days. Republicans asked the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stay that decision while they pursue an appeal.

The court refused to grant the stay in a four-page order Friday evening. The order didn’t offer any justification or explanation.

A number of states have delayed their spring elections as the coronavirus sweeps across the country but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders haven’t been able to reach a consensus on changes to Wisconsin’s election on Tuesday. Their inaction has led to mounting criticism against both sides and thousands of poll workers quitting.

Democrats and a host of liberal groups filed three lawsuits demanding Conley postpone the election, extended absentee ballot filing deadlines and lift requirements that absentee voters supply photo IDs and obtain witness signatures.

Attorneys for the Republican National Committee, state Republican Party and Republican legislators turned immediately to the 7th Circuit, arguing that Conley’s decision violates core principles that judges shouldn’t change the rules in ongoing elections, allows people to vote after Election Day and renders the witness requirement meaningless, opening the door to voter fraud.

The 7th Circuit did stay Conley’s decision to exempt absentee voters from the witness signature requirement, saying the judge didn’t consider that lifting the mandate might open the door to fraud.

The Republicans’ attorneys didn’t immediately respond to email messages Friday evening seeking comment on the appellate court’s decision.

The appellate court’s rulings marked another turn in a what’s becoming a bitter fight over whether to continue with Wisconsin’s primary as the coronavirus sweeps across the state.

Republicans brushed off Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call Friday to meet in special session to delay Tuesday’s presidential primary and shift to mail-only, saying the election should continue as planned. Evers wanted the session to begin Saturday afternoon and for lawmakers to take up bills that would allow clerks to mail absentee ballots to voters who haven’t requested one by May 19 and give voters until May 26 to return them.

Evers said at the beginning of the outbreak that the election should go on as scheduled even amid a stay-at-home order and Republican legislators agreed. On Friday, they accused him of waffling under pressure from liberal groups.

“It’s so disappointing that Governor Evers has flip-flopped on the very question that we have been discussing over the last month,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement. “The only bipartisan discussion we’ve had was to ensure the election would continue safely and to maximize the opportunity to vote absentee.”

Other states have delayed their primaries to protect voters and poll workers from the virus. Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii and Louisiana were set to hold elections Saturday, but they’ve pushed those contests back. Louisiana’s presidential primary is now set for June 20. Democrats in Alaska and Wyoming have decided to hold their party-run contests by mail only and have pushed back the deadline for turning in ballots.

In Wisconsin, criticism of Evers has been mounting as more and more poll workers walk off the job; more than 100 municipalities have reported they lack enough staff to run even one polling place. Democrats and liberal groups filed three federal lawsuits demanding Conley postpone in-person voting. The judge declined to delay the election in his Thursday order but extended the absentee voting deadline and lifted the witness requirement.

The governor has said he lacks the power to change election law unilaterally. Calling a special session was Evers’ last option to try and force legislative action.

The governor said during a conference call with reporters that holding the election as planned on Tuesday “is a significant concern and a very unnecessary health risk. I can’t move this election on my own. My hands are tied.”

The primary comes as Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders but hasn’t formally clinched the Democratic nomination. Tuesday’s election also features hundreds of races for local office as well as a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat.

It also comes as Wisconsin’s chief medical officer says the state is “flattening the curve” on new COVID-19 infections. Dr. Ryan Westergaard said this week Evers’ stay-at-home order “is making a big difference.”

President Donald Trump took time out from Friday’s briefing on the coronavirus to claim without evidence that the push to delay the election was to hurt a conservative he endorsed, state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, and not because of the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly faces liberal-backed Jill Karofsky for a 10-year term.

“I hear what happened is his poll numbers went through the roof. And because of that, I think they delayed the election,” Trump said.

Trump also said he opposes mail-in voting because of fraud concerns: “It shouldn’t be mailed in. You should vote at the booth and you should have voter ID.”

Wisconsin requires voters to provide voter ID even when voting absentee.

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