By John Whitesides
(Reuters) – A federal judge refused on Thursday to postpone next week’s U.S. presidential primary in Wisconsin, but extended the time for absentee voting amid widespread worries about health risks from the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled that holding Tuesday’s nominating contest during the pandemic would create “unprecedented burdens” for voters and poll workers but it was not appropriate for a federal court to delay the statewide election.
Conley added an extra six days to the deadline for absentee ballots to be received by election officials, however, extending it until April 13. He also gave voters an extra day, until Friday, to request absentee ballots and loosened a state requirement that a witness sign an absentee ballot.
The ruling came on three lawsuits filed by Democrats and voting rights groups asking Wisconsin to postpone the primary or expand absentee voting during the coronavirus outbreak, which has created worries about health risks and led to a shortage of poll workers for Tuesday.
Residents are under orders to stay at home and public gatherings are banned in Wisconsin. But the state’s Democratic governor and Republican-controlled state legislature have not moved to delay the primary and local elections also scheduled for Tuesday.
“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.
“Nor is it appropriate for a federal district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them,” he said.
The pandemic has disrupted the Democratic race to pick a challenger for Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, knocking front-runner Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail and forcing more than a dozen other states to delay or adjust their primaries to limit the health risks.
In Wisconsin, concerns about coronavirus have left nearly 60% of the state’s municipalities with a shortage of poll workers, and more than 100 municipalities without staff for even one polling site, the state’s elections commission reported. The Wisconsin Army National Guard is set to help at the polls Tuesday.
More than 1.1 million absentee ballots had been requested as of Thursday – surpassing the total turnout in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary – although fewer than half have been returned so far.
State officials have cited the need to conduct the election soon because it will decide thousands of state and local offices, including a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that could be instrumental in deciding future voting-rights cases. Wisconsin is considered a battleground state crucial to November’s election.
Governor Tony Evers asked the state legislature last week to pass a bill to send an absentee ballot to every registered voter, but Republicans said there was not enough time to make that feasible.
“If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law,” Evers said.
Evers has come under heavy fire from some of his fellow Democrats for not pushing the legislature for a postponement of the primary. Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, had called on Wednesday for a delay.
The Democratic National Committee hailed the judge’s decision.
“We are glad that the court came to the right decision today,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said. “Expanding access to absentee voting is critical in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and we continue to encourage all states to pursue vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee voting.”
In a legal brief to the federal court handling the lawsuits, Evers said extending the deadline for getting and returning an absentee ballot, and loosening the witnessing provisions, were an appropriate “middle ground” to protect both health and the right to vote.
(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Will Dunham, Peter Cooney and Tom Brown)