MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge ordered that Wisconsin reinstate online voter registration to make it possible for more people to cast absentee ballots ahead of the April 7 presidential primary and spring election, handing Democrats who sought even broader changes in light of the coronavirus pandemic a partial victory.
U.S. District Judge William Conley issued the ruling Friday night, just hours after both sides submitted written arguments. The state and national Democratic parties brought the lawsuit and were opposed by Republicans who control the state Legislature as well as the Wisconsin and national Republican parties.
Under state law, the deadline for Wisconsin voters to register online to cast absentee ballots was Wednesday. But Conley ruled that the state must open online registration again because of disruptions to daily lives caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission said in a statement late Friday night that it was working to comply with the court’s order and reopen online registration “as soon as we can make and test the changes to our systems. ”
“This is not as simple as reposting an online form,” the commission said. “With the election underway, we need to be very careful to test this change to ensure it does not adversely affect other functions, including absentee ballot requests.”
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler tweeted that the ruling means “huge numbers of Wisconsinites potentially re-enfranchised.”
The judge also left open the possibility that he would later grant other requests from Democrats, including allowing absentee ballots to be counted if they arrive after Election Day.
Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he is disappointed that Democrats are not allowing Republicans to be heard in the matter.
“During a national crisis, it is still just as important to protect fair elections and ensure that the voices of all Wisconsinites are equally heard,” Hitt said in a statement.
Both Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said they were not going to move the election date. In addition to the presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local contests for mayor, city council, school board and other seats were on the ballot.
“I’ve always believed we need more access to democracy, not less, and am pleased to see the court take steps to ensure we can hold a fair, safe election,” Evers said in a statement reacting to the ruling. “I continue to encourage all Wisconsinites to request an absentee ballot.”
The deadline to vote absentee, after a voter is registered, is April 2.
Republicans had argued in court filings before the ruling that the federal court shouldn’t get involved. Democrats pushed for the changes, saying voters should not have to risk their safety by voting in public on election day.