A federal judge signaled Wednesday that he won't postpone or make any major changes to Wisconsin's presidential primary to alleviate concerns that voters and poll workers could contract the coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge William Conley told attorneys for the Democratic National Committee and a host of liberal-leaning groups that they haven't shown how the pandemic has truly hampered people's voting rights. He said infections look ready to spike in Wisconsin but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders don't feel the crisis is severe enough to stop the election.
"I'm not sure it's my place to to assume the steps taken by the state or not taken by the state is an impingement on an individual's right to vote. That's what I'm struggling with," Conley said.
Tuesday's election includes the state's presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races.
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Other states have postponed their spring elections as the coronavirus spreads. Wisconsin poll workers have been quitting in droves; more than 100 municipalities lack enough staffers to run even a single polling site.
Evers has called for moving to an all-mail basis but Republican lawmakers want the election go forward as scheduled. Both governor and legislators have said they're worried about leaving local offices vacant indefinitely since most local officials' terms end later this month. Evers on Tuesday said he plans to deploy National Guard soldiers to staff undermanned polling sites.
"I think we are up to the task and it sounds like (the election is) going to get done," Scott Fitzerald, the state Senate's Republican majority leader, said.
Their stance has rankled Democrats and their allies. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined a chorus of complaints Wednesday, issuing a statement saying the election should be delayed.
The Democratic National Committee, the state Democratic Party and a number of liberal-leaning groups including two labor unions and the League of Women Voters, have filed three federal lawsuits that seek to postpone in-person voting until Evers' stay-at-home order expires April 24 and extend the deadline for filing absentee ballots to June 2; the current deadline is 8 p.m. on election night. The filings also seek to lift requirements that absentee voters include copies of photo ID with their ballot applications and absentee voters get witnesses to sign their ballots.
Conley told the groups' attorneys during a hearing that he personally doesn't think it's a good idea to continue the election as scheduled, especially since it appears Wisconsin is on the cusp of an exponential increase in infections. But he said he's reluctant to trump Evers and the Legislature's decision to go forward. He said he would need evidence that the entire election has been undermined and no one will know that until Election Day.
He pointed out that more than a million people have requested absentee ballots so far and hinted he might be willing to extend the deadline for getting absentee ballots to local clerks from Election Day to April 13. But asking to lift voter ID requirements is “a reach” and all people need to upload a copy is a smartphone, the judge said. As far as suspending the witness requirement, the attorneys haven't shown a large group of people lack anyone who can act as one, he said.
He didn't issue a formal ruling, however. It's unclear when that may come.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday shows 51% of respondents support delaying the election, while 44% say it should be held as scheduled.
Former Vice President Joe Biden opened a wide lead on Sanders in the Democratic presidential race. Biden had 62% support compared with 34% for Sanders, who won Wisconsin’s Democratic primary in 2016.
The poll of 813 registered Wisconsin voters was conducted between March 24 and Sunday. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.