MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Democrats filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday to extend absentee voting deadlines and suspend certain voter-registration rules for Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, in light of widespread disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal complaint brought in Madison by the Democratic National Committee and Wisconsin Democratic Party names the six commissioners of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission as defendants in their official capacity.
The Democrats’ 16-page complaint requests changes to the procedures and deadlines for absentee voting and voter registrations in light of the exponential spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus strain, which has documented cases in every U.S. state and has ravaged Asia and Europe with over 200,000 confirmed cases globally and nearly 9,000 deaths.
Wisconsin announced Wednesday afternoon that it has surpassed 100 confirmed cases, with no deaths announced yet.
“In this unprecedented situation,” the lawsuit states, “multiple provisions of law that establish requirements for registering to vote and absentee voting are now posing direct and severe obstacles to voting.”
The Democrats, represented by Bruce Spiva with the Washington, D.C., branch of international firm Perkins Coie, argue that forced confinement and social distancing implemented to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus will prevent people from voting, regardless of whether they are able or willing to leave their homes.
The lawsuit notes that Wisconsinites are already indicating an inability or unwillingness to vote in person given unprecedented levels of absentee ballot requests, with over 173,000 absentee applications having been received as of Tuesday.
In order to combat unparalleled disruptions caused by the global pandemic, the Democrats asked Wisconsin’s elections commission to extend the deadline for electronic and by-mail registration from Wednesday to April 3 and the deadline for receiving by-mail absentee ballots from 8 p.m. on Election Day to within 10 days after the election, provided the ballots are postmarked by Election Day.
The suit also requested the commission suspend the requirement that a copy of a voter’s photo identification be included with absentee ballot requests and copies of proof of residency documents be included with registration requests for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A press release from Democrats argued that “by implementing these measures, the state can ensure that Wisconsinites’ right to vote is not infringed upon during this extraordinary and unprecedented time.”
In support of the suit, which asks for relief under the First, 14th and 24th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez said Wednesday that “increasing these necessary measures will help protect both public health and Wisconsinites’ right to participate in our democracy.”
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler similarly implored that “nobody should have to choose between exposure to COVID-19 and disenfranchisement,” calling on the court to “immediately strike down the barriers to full participation in voting by mail.”
Governor Tony Evers declared a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak on March 12 and on Tuesday banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
Evers, a Democrat, has been resistant to the idea of postponing the April 7 primary election altogether, though, expressing concern that certain state and local offices on the April ballot whose terms would begin later in April could be rendered vacant.
As of Wednesday, five other states have postponed elections because of the spread of the virus, including Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana.
Evers’ spokesperson Melissa Baldauff stressed Wednesday that “ensuring the health and safety of Wisconsinites is our top priority, but the governor has also said that our democracy must continue. He has been urging folks to vote by absentee ballot and believes that process should be as simple and accessible as possible.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit, but the commission held a previously scheduled emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possibility of altering normal election dates and procedures.
Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, blasted Democrats’ attempts to change up election procedures Wednesday.
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, took Democrats to task for “trying to hijack a national health crisis to rig an election in their favor.”
Jefferson argued Democrats should instead join Republicans in urging Wisconsin voting clerks to allow statewide early voting immediately instead of calling for changes to help their communities of support.
“Instead, they insist on suspending common-sense rules in an effort to further rig the election,” he said.
Aside from the presidential primary, the Badger State’s April 7 election also features a hotly contested race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court between current conservative Justice Daniel Kelly and liberal Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky. Also on the ballot are races for Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.