Federal judge to WI governor, legislature: You gotta be kidding about holding a primary next week, right? Update: Absentee ballot deadline extended

In five days, Wisconsin plans to hold its statewide primary as scheduled, even while a stay-at-home order remains in place. Yesterday, an exasperated federal judge concluded he could do nothing to stop it — but blasted Gov. Tony Evers and the state legislature for not rescheduling it. Judge William Conley dropped a big hint that while his authority can’t allow him to order the election postponed, he’s very interested in entertaining disenfranchisement lawsuits after the fact that could allow him to overturn its results:

A federal judge slammed Gov. Tony Evers and lawmakers Wednesday for ignoring their responsibilities by not postponing next week’s election because of the coronavirus pandemic as the Democratic governor prepared to deploy the National Guard to help at the polls.

“The State of Wisconsin’s Legislature and governor are not willing to step up and say there’s a public health crisis and make it absolutely clear that we should not be allowing poll workers and voters to congregate on April 7,” U.S. District Judge William Conley said near the end of a four-hour hearing.

Conley said he did not believe he had the power to delay Tuesday’s election but would consider making some changes to voting rules. He said those who have brought lawsuits could come back to him after the election if they believe large numbers of people were disenfranchised.

In other words, not-so-nice election ya got there. Shame if anything happened to the results. Activist attorneys have to be licking their chops to file those lawsuits on April 8, the day after the primary. Conley has to hope that this invitation to lawsuits will finally press the Wisconsin governing class to act first rather than have its election twice.

Conley compared the plan to conduct a normal election to holding one in a hurricane. Aren’t elected officials concerned about public safety in a pandemic, Conley wondered:

“I don’t see a basis on which I can stop this, albeit it’s a very risky decision by the state of Wisconsin,” he said.

The judge compared holding the election during the pandemic to having one during a deadly storm.

“You expect the state of Wisconsin to realize this is a hurricane and prevent (the election) and stop it for public health reasons,” he said[.]

So whose bright idea is it to continue to hold the election, complete with public polling places, while demanding people stay at home? Evers kinda-sorta passed the buck to the legislature for not acting to go to an all-absentee ballot election or move the primary date:

“If I could have changed the election on my own, I would have, but I can’t without violating state law. 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 bottom line is that we have to keep folks safe, and we have to make sure everyone who wants to vote has the opportunity to make their voice heard.”

Republicans slapped back at Evers, announcing that he hadn’t once expressed any interest in moving the date.

“Not once has the governor suggested moving the election date. In fact, not a single Democratic legislator has even introduced a bill that would move the election date. For Democrats to suggest now that their hands were somehow tied is pure cowardice. I continue to support holding the election on April 7 — our Republic must continue to function.”

Ahem. Our Republic would continue to function just as well if they pushed the date to, say, early June. That would give Wisconsin voters plenty of time to get absentee ballots and to figure out how to participate even if they don’t want to touch voting booths used by dozens of other people during a pandemic. How tough is it to figure out that the voting process at the moment could become an amplifier for an epidemic that has workers sitting idle at home already?

Conley’s right to be frustrated, and Wisconsin voters should be even more unhappy with their current pass-the-buck leadership.

Update: Conley can’t stop the primary from taking place on April 7, but he decided he has the authority to adjust the absentee voting process:

In a ruling Thursday, US District Judge William Conley did extend the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned from Election Day on April 7 to April 13. He also pushed back the state’s deadline to request absentee ballots from Thursday to Friday, and said the state must also count ballots from those who submit “a written affirmation or other statement” that they weren’t able to get a witness to sign their ballots.

But he did not move the primary despite pleas from mayors and concerns from state and local elections officials about a critical shortage of poll workers that has led Evers to say he’ll deploy the National Guard to staff polling stations.

This might incentivize more people to vote absentee, but it’s not going to help the precinct staff a whole lot with their social distancing.