Sweeping federal lawsuit seeks election changes in Wisconsin

MADISON  — Advocates for people with disabilities and minority voters in Wisconsin filed a sweeping federal lawsuit Monday asking a judge to order that more poll workers be hired, every voter in the state receive an absentee ballot and a host of other changes be made to ensure the August primary and November presidential election can be held safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin has been at the center of the fight, both in court and out, over elections during the pandemic after it proceeded with its April 7 presidential primary even as other states delayed voting. The election drew widespread criticism as voters faced long lines in Green Bay and Milwaukee, where just five of 180 polling sites were open.

The lawsuit argues that not enough has been done since then to ensure that the upcoming elections can be conducted safely and fairly. Proceeding without the changes sought would violate the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lawsuit alleges.

It was filed against the Wisconsin Elections Commission by Disability Rights Wisconsin, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three voters who said they were prevented from voting, or faced obstacles to casting ballots, in the April 7 presidential primary and spring election. Protect Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based group formed by former aides to President Barack Obama, is assisting with the lawsuit.

“Wisconsin’s April 7 election was a disaster for the voters of the state and for our democracy,” said Rachel Goodman, an attorney for Protect Democracy. “Tens of thousands of voters were disenfranchised, and tens of thousands more were forced to risk their health in order to vote. We owe it to all Wisconsin voters to make sure the system doesn’t fail them again.”

The plaintiffs argue that the pandemic will still be ongoing, with no vaccine available, during the upcoming August statewide primary and November presidential elections. Voters will, understandably, fear for their safety if voting in person, the lawsuit alleges.

Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney declined to comment.

The lawsuit seeks multiple changes ahead of the elections, including sending absentee ballots to all voters; hiring additional staff to count those ballots as they're returned; requiring that voting machines accessible to people with disabilities be available at all in-person absentee voting locations; hiring more poll workers; and upgrading voter registration systems to handle the anticipated increased volume of online voter registration and absentee ballot requests.

The lawsuit also wants to require that absentee ballot drop boxes be installed in every community; state elections officials work with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure timely delivery, return and counting of absentee ballots; notify voters if their absentee ballots won't be counted in time for them to fix problems; increase opportunities for curbside voting; and launch a public education campaign about voting options. It also wants to allow for absentee ballots to be counted for up to a week after the election if they are postmarked by election day or don't have a postmark.

The lawsuit also asks that any voter whose immune system is compromised, who is therefore a higher COVID-19 risk, be able to cast absentee ballots without having to provide a copy of a photo ID or get a witness. And the lawsuit asks for suspension of a state law requiring that poll workers come from the county where they work, making it easier to deal with vacancies.

Three previous federal lawsuits related to how Wisconsin runs elections have already been consolidated into one. There are also two election-related lawsuits in state court.