Aug. 5 hearing date set, with decision to come by end of August.
U.S. District Judge William Conley signaled on Monday that he will make a ruling on a series of election-related lawsuits in late August, meaning any court-mandated safety improvements would only take effect for the Nov. 3 General Election, not the Aug. 11 primaries.
Conley combined four separate lawsuits seeking changes to the August and November elections such as expanding mail-in and early in-person voting, maintaining adequate polling-place staffing, and engaging in a public information campaign on early voting.
Various parties are seeking similar changes to avoid a repeat of the April 7 election, which saw thousands of voters in Milwaukee and Green Bay wait in lines that were at times hours long in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Conley, who set a hearing for Aug. 5, said he was skeptical as to whether he will have the authority to grant or deny certain requests in the lawsuits, such as mandating that cities hire more poll workers to keep all polling places open.
“That kind of amorphous relief obviously is not something that, in the short time that we’ll have in the run-up to the election, I think can practically be implemented,” Conley said.
Conley said he’s “not disagreeing necessarily with the spirit of such broad directions” but said that state statutes might not empower the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is the target of the lawsuits, to make the changes. (The Republican National Committee and Wisconsin GOP have inserted themselves as defendants as well.)
“I’m not sure the Wisconsin Elections Commission has the power to direct the City of Milwaukee to change the number of polling locations, to ensure accessibility at those locations,” Conley said, in reference to the April election, when Milwaukee’s independent Elections Commission reduced the number of polling places from 182 to five due to a severe shortage of poll workers.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission already essentially granted a request to send absentee ballot applications to all Wisconsin voters. While commissioners did not go so far as to send the applications to every registered voter, they decided to mail them to 2.7 million voters in the state.
“We are very much aware that the Wisconsin Elections Commission is working toward some of the goals that we have laid out,” said Rachel Goodman, an attorney representing a handful of voters and the advocacy groups Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Disability Rights Wisconsin.
In April, Conley sided with liberal groups when he ruled that clerks would be allowed to count absentee ballots that arrived in the mail up to six days after the election, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that extension on the eve of the April 7 election.
The Aug. 5 hearing date for the current lawsuits is meant to allow time for appeals in advance of the General Election in November.