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Wisconsin Officials Sued After ‘Biggest Election Failure Since the Voting Rights Act Was Enacted’

A coalition of voter advocacy groups and individuals on Monday filed a federal lawsuit claiming thousands of citizens were denied the right to vote in April’s elections. The plaintiffs asked a federal judge to ensure that polling locations would be efficiently staffed and that all voters in the state received an absentee ballot application.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin argued that the April 7 elections, which took place amid the coronavirus pandemic and left the state’s in-person voting locations severely depleted, violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee that no eligible citizen would be deprived of their right to vote.

“What ensued has been described by one election law expert as the biggest election failure since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965. Voters encountered obstacles at almost every stage of the election process, including navigating the online systems designed to register voters and request absentee ballots; requesting absentee ballots, which were either never delivered or delivered too late; and voting in person,” the lawsuit stated. “Plaintiffs allege that Defendants, by failing to take appropriate actions to ensure that Wisconsinites can safely access the ballot, violated Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act, the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA). They bring this civil action to enjoin Defendants— Commissioners and the Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission—from similarly violating Wisconsinites’ rights to vote during future elections affected by COVID-19.”

Commissioners of the Wisconsin Elections Commission Marge Bostelmann, Julie M. Glancey, Ann S. Jacobs, Dean Knudson, Robert F. Spindell Jr., and Mark L. Thomsen were each sued in their official capacities. Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission Meagan Wolfe was also named as a defendant.

The lawsuit further claimed that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be violated if state officials proceed with the November elections without making key assurances. The plaintiffs demanded: additional polling staffers; requiring absentee ballot applications to be sent to all voters; setting up secure drop boxes for absentee ballots; making sure voting machines were accessible to persons with disabilities. Plaintiffs also sought to make it mandatory for officials to notify voters if their ballots are being discounted with enough time to allow for the problem to be fixed before the voting deadline.

Several of the individual plaintiffs in the case suffer from chronic illnesses and felt unsafe going to the polls in-person last month, but were also unable to send in absentee ballots for myriad reasons.

The complaint adds to a swell of litigation already surrounding Wisconsin elections, three of which have been consolidated before U.S. District Judge William Conley. However, Monday’s lawsuit is the first to be filed by voters claiming they were tangibly harmed by the April 7 election process.

“This lawsuit is not about a particular party or a particular city or a particular subset of voters,” counsel with Protect Democracy Rachel Goodman said in an email to Law&Crime. Protect Democracy is one of the groups representing the plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s about ensuring that our democracy really enfranchises all voters through the pandemic and beyond,” Goodman added.

See below for the full filing.

Swenson v Bostelmann Complaint by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.