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Elections panel agrees to make overseas ballot changes

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin elections officials agreed Thursday to lift overseas ballot restrictions to avoid a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The agency warned the state Elections Commission earlier this month that it’s preparing to sue because Wisconsin law doesn’t let temporary overseas voters obtain ballots electronically or to submit downloadable backup ballots in case they don’t have time to return an official ballot.

The commission voted unanimously in closed session Thursday afternoon to enter into a consent decree with the DOJ to allow temporary voters to get their ballots electronically and submit the backup ballots.

The commission announced the decision after reconvening in open session with no public discussion apart from Chairman Mark Thomsen telling Wisconsin Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Thomas Bellavia that the panel had given him the authority “to solve this” with the decree. Bellavia is representing the commission in the dispute.

Federal law allows all overseas voters to obtain ballots electronically and submit backup ballots. Wisconsin election law, however, creates two categories of overseas voters: permanent overseas voters — defined as voters who never intend to return to Wisconsin — and temporary overseas voters, who may be on vacation or working overseas but intend to one day return to the state.

The election commission interpreted state law to mean permanent overseas voters can obtain ballots electronically and submit downloadable backup ballots but temporary overseas voters cannot.

Assembly Republicans passed a bill in February that would have aligned state and federal law but the measure died in the Senate. Republicans added language to the bill that prohibited special elections to fill open legislative seats after the spring election in even-numbered years. The amendment was an attempt to support Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to call special elections this year to fill an open Assembly seat and an open Senate seat.

The GOP dropped the bill after a judge ordered Walker to set the elections for June.

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