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Federal judge refuses to postpone next week's Wisconsin primary

Federal judge refuses to postpone next week's Wisconsin primary
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A federal judge on Thursday refused to push back the date of Wisconsin's April 7 presidential primary despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, but ordered that absentee voting be extended to April 13.

The ruling comes after the court heard arguments Wednesday over whether the voting date should be postponed as much of the country practices social distancing to limit person-to-person transmission of the virus and as Wisconsin faces a shortage of poll workers.

U.S. District Judge William Conley, an Obama appointee, expressed concerns that holding an in-person vote on Tuesday could result in lower voter turnout and increase the spread of COVID-19, but said he was powerless to alter the timing.

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“[However] ill-advised in terms of the public health risks and the likelihood of a successful election, the only role of a federal district court is to take steps that help avoid the impingement on citizens’ rights to exercise their voting franchise as protected by the United States Constitution and federal statutes,” he wrote.

“That is what the court attempts to do in this opinion and the order below, understanding that a consequence of these measures may be to further the public health crisis in this State,” Conley continued. “Unfortunately, that is beyond the power of this court to control.”

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin celebrated Conley’s decision to extend absentee voting. The ruling pushed back the deadline to request absentee ballots to Friday, and the return date to April 13, and did away with a requirement that an absentee vote be completed before a witness.

"Today's ruling is a victory for voters, for public health, and for democracy itself,” Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement. “Every voter must count, even during crises, and this ruling gives voters critical time to vote safely by mail." 

During oral arguments a day earlier, Conley slammed Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) and lawmakers for not delaying Tuesday’s primary election amid the coronavirus pandemic, and compared holding the election during the pandemic to having one during a deadly storm. 

But Evers on Wednesday stood by the state's decision to hold next week’s primary, tweeting that he can't change it "without violating state law." 

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“We have three branches of government to ensure a system of checks and balances, and questions about our elections typically rely on all three playing a role. If I could have changed the election on my own I would have, but I can’t without violating state law,” he tweeted. 

“I’ve asked the legislature to do its part to ensure a fair, 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,” he added.

The decision to move forward with the Tuesday vote faced pushback from fellow Democrats.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) said Wednesday he hoped city residents would not show up at the polls.

“I don’t think that it’s good public policy, I think it’s dangerous during a pandemic. And I hope that people do not go to the polls on Tuesday," Barrett told reporters on a conference call, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Updated at 5:26 p.m.