A federal judge ordered Friday that Wisconsin clerks cannot release any results from its presidential primaries on Tuesday until April 13, a deadline for submitting absentee ballots that was extended due to concerns about in-person voting amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The order by U.S. District Judge William M. Conley is the latest fallout from the controversy over Wisconsin’s decision to proceed with its elections despite widespread concerns that the pandemic could risk public health and curtail access to the polls.
In effect, it will mean a blackout of traditional reporting of election returns on Tuesday night after the polls have closed in contests including the still-ongoing race for the Democratic presidential nomination between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Under Conley’s order, results are not allowed to be released until 4 p.m. local time in Wisconsin on April 13, nearly a week after the close of the polls Tuesday.
On Thursday, Conley declined to postpone Wisconsin’s primaries, meaning it will remain the only one of 11 states originally scheduled to hold contests in April that has not postponed or dramatically altered voting amid the pandemic.
However, in a 53-page ruling, Conley extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be requested by voters by six days and said they must be received by election officials by April 13 to count.
Conley made clear that he disagreed with the state’s decision to go forward with the election, but he explained that he was constrained to consider only the constitutional rights of voters — not public health.
“Without doubt, the April 7 election day will create unprecedented burdens not just for aspiring voters, but also for poll workers, clerks, and indeed the state,” Conley wrote. “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. Nor is it appropriate for a federal-district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them.”
Sanders this week urged state officials to postpone the contest, but Biden told reporters Thursday that the question is “for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide,” adding that he thinks it’s possible to hold an election during the pandemic with more mail-in balloting.
Voting-rights activists and local election administrators in Wisconsin painted a dire portrait of the risk of infection to poll workers and voters, saying how difficult it would be to administer elections under those circumstances.
More than 100 municipalities reported not having enough poll workers to open a single voting location. State officials predicted that tens of thousands of voters who have flooded election offices with mail-ballot requests in recent days were at risk of not receiving them on time.
Leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature have argued that moving the voting date so late in the process would sow confusion and create a leadership vacuum in cities and towns holding contests for municipal posts that will be vacant as early as mid-April.
Voting rights groups turned to the federal courts for intervention, supported by national Democrats and some county clerks in the state. National Republicans are helping defend the decision to go forward with voting next week.
The power to delay an election in Wisconsin lies with the legislature, but Scott L. Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, and the Republican state House speaker, Robin Vos, noted that Gov. Tony Evers (D) did not push to postpone Tuesday’s vote, either.
“If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday night. “I’ve asked the legislature to do its part to ensure a fair and safe election and I hope we can get some clarity as soon as possible.”
The latest Post-ABC News poll shows President Trump and his likely rival in November, former vice president Joe Biden, in a tightly competitive race, with Trump moving from what was a seven-point deficit in February to a near tie with Biden.
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Biden, with a delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders, is working to become more visible, sitting for TV interviews, taking questions from reporters and holding a virtual happy hour with supporters. Sanders’s continued presence in the race is worrying some Democrats, scarred by 2016.
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