MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Three disenfranchised Wisconsin voters and two local advocacy groups brought a federal lawsuit against the state elections commission Monday, seeking proactive changes to election procedures for the state’s remaining 2020 elections to ensure people can safely and effectively vote during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The 70-page complaint filed in Madison federal court seeks to ensure that every registered voter in Wisconsin has safe and ample opportunities to vote either in person or via absentee ballot for the state’s August primary and the November general election in line with ongoing restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Disability Rights Wisconsin and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities named the six members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and the commission’s administrator as defendants in their complaint, which was also brought by two voters from Appleton and one from Milwaukee.
The groups and the voters are the latest to bring legal challenges in reaction to Wisconsin’s controversial April 7 presidential primary election, which saw voters suit up in masks and gloves to break social distancing guidelines and vote in person at a greatly diminished number of polling places statewide after a flurry of eleventh-hour court rulings and partisan political gamesmanship.
“As a result,” Monday’s complaint says, “voters were forced to choose between forgoing their constitutional rights to participate in their democracy or risking the health of themselves and their loved ones in order to vote.”
Wisconsin was the only state not to cancel or postpone its April primary in light of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which by early April had convulsed global markets and brought daily civic life to a standstill as businesses closed, lockdown orders keeping people at home were enacted, and confirmed infections and deaths climbed exponentially.
The buildup to Wisconsin’s April primary was a chaotic whirlwind resulting in two consequential legal decisions issued the night before Election Day, putting the national spotlight on the Badger State as a guinea pig for how to carry out elections during the pandemic.
The first ruling was a 4-2 party-line decision from the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court enjoining Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ executive order calling off in-person voting altogether, which arrived hours after the executive order was issued. The second decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, which barred an extension to absentee voting ordered by a federal judge, came not long after that on April 6.
So Wisconsin carried on with its primary, which included well over 1 million absentee ballots requested by Election Day amid critical shortages of protective equipment, personnel and polling places. Election officials statewide scrambled, including in Milwaukee where only five out of a usual 180 polling places were open for the entire city, resulting in huge lines of voters in masks and gloves attempting to maintain social distancing at crowded polling places on Election Day.
“What ensued has been described by one election law expert as the biggest election failure since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965,” Monday’s lawsuit states.
In order to avoid a repeat of the April primary, and given that public health experts are largely in agreement that the coronavirus pandemic will affect daily life one way or another well into next year, the complaint asks the Wisconsin Elections Commission to ensure that adequate numbers of polling locations and poll workers are guaranteed for 2020’s remaining elections and that there are ample opportunities for voters to safely and securely vote absentee, including by sending an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter in the state ahead of Election Day.
“Absent intervention by this court…the same electoral process breakdown and resulting violation of plaintiffs’ rights under federal law is likely to recur during the impending August partisan primary and November general election,” the lawsuit claims, invoking the Voting Rights Act, the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.