Lawmakers, DOJ: No evidence to support relaxing voting laws

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Attorneys for the state Justice Department and Republican legislators tried to blunt Democrats’ demands to rework Wisconsin’s election laws to accommodate coronavirus-related social distancing, telling a federal judge that there’s no evidence voters face any additional hardships as the state’s spring election approaches.

The state Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee countered during a conference call with U.S. District Judge William Conley that all Conley needs to do is look around.

“You’re closing bars and restaurants, schools. No mass gatherings of 10 or more people,” the Democrats’ attorney, Bruce Spiva, said. “We’re all doing these arguments from our basement.”

Wisconsin’s spring election is set for April 7. The ballot will include the presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and scores of local races.

A host of states have postponed their elections in hopes of slowing the virus’ spread. But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has resisted pressure to reschedule, saying a delay could leave local offices vacant. The governor has urged people to vote absentee and avoid an in-person trip to the polls. The message is resonating; clerks had received 315,429 absentee ballot requests as of Thursday morning, a new record for a spring election.

Still, the state Democratic Party and the national committee filed a federal lawsuit against the Wisconsin Election Commission on Wednesday calling for relaxing a range of absentee voting and registration requirements and deadlines.

The Democrats want Conley to suspend requirements that absentee ballot applications include a photo ID and new registrants present copies of documents that prove their residency. Clerks should be allowed to count ballots received within 10 days after the election, the lawsuit demands; the current deadline for receipt is 8 p.m. on election night.

The lawsuit also calls for extending the deadline for registering online or by mail should extend to April 3. The current deadline for remote registration expired Wednesday, although people can still register in clerks’ offices or at the polls.

Spiva, the Democrats’ attorney, opened the conference call with Conley by arguing that people have been forced to stay home and can’t access their printers and scanners, making it difficult to print and upload documents. In-person voting and registration would fly in the face of social distancing orders, he added.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Keenan and Misha Tseytlin, the Republican legislators’ attorney, argued Conley shouldn’t change election law during an ongoing election. They insisted that Spiva hasn’t shown any evidence that social distancing is hurting voters. Tseytlin pointed out that Spiva’s briefs don’t include a single anecdote of a voter facing difficulties.

“There’s virtually no evidence they’ve submitted to support their request,” Tseytlin said.

Spiva pointed to increasingly severe social distancing orders, from school closures to limits on mass gatherings as evidence voters face hardships. Conley needs to look at what’s happening around him, he said.

Conley responded that it would be “Pollyannish” of him to believe that voters won’t face challenges at the polls and he’s seen “the reality” in other states.

“The calculus for the average voter has changed,” he said. “(But) the impact so far may not be as severe as suggested by (Democrats).”

Conley didn’t take any action during the call. He gave Keenan and Tseytlin until Friday afternoon to file briefs.

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