Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

Wisconsin voters again face an Election Day deadline to return their absentee ballots after a split federal appeals court stayed a decision that had pushed it back six days.

In the 2-1 ruling Thursday, the majority found Judge William Conley’s ruling violated a U.S. Supreme Court standard guarding against changes to state standards too close to an election. What’s more, the majority found Wisconsin voters have had plenty of time to prepare for casting their ballots under normal deadlines amid a pandemic.

Conley issued a similar order in the days ahead of the April election, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals signed off on significant pieces of that decision. But the court Thursday noted Wisconsin has put on two elections since in April and August, and voters have had significant time to prepare to cast their ballot in November under the normal deadlines.

Conley, the majority found, focused largely on those voters who waited until the last minute to decide they wanted to avoid voting in person. The court noted the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Conley’s April order that “voters who wait until the last minute face problems with or without a pandemic.”

It is best to leave late changes to election laws to the Legislature rather than the courts, the majority found.

“A last-minute event may require a last-minute reaction. But it is not possible to describe
COVID-19 as a last-minute event,” the majority ruled.

In dissent, Judge Ilana Rovner noted the Legislature had failed to make any accommodations for voters amid the pandemic and then appealed Conley’s ruling “in furtherance of its own power.”

She added that the decision will result in “many thousands” of Wisconsinites losing their right to vote despite taking reasonable steps to exercise it.

“This is a travesty,” wrote Rovner, who was appointed to the court by President George H.W. Bush.

Conley had ruled that absentee ballots received by Nov. 9 would count so long as they were postmarked by Election Day Nov. 3. Other provisions in his order included extending by one week to Oct. 21 the deadline to register to vote online or by mail. Those changes have all been put on hold.

As of this morning’s update from the state Elections Commission, Wisconsin voters have requested 1.3 million absentee ballots have returned 614,243.

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