By Matt Reynonds/Courthouse News
(CN) – Wisconsin has agreed to reverse a policy that prevented temporary overseas voters from receiving absentee ballots electronically after the U.S. government filed a lawsuit claiming state election officials were violating federal voting laws, the Justice Department said Thursday.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, federal prosecutors alleged that Wisconsin election officials had failed to comply with the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA, which gives Americans, including temporary overseas voters, the right to receive ballots electronically or use federal write-in absentee ballots to cast their votes.
The Justice Department said that the Badger State was relying on state laws that distinguish between permanent and temporary overseas voters, leading to weakened protections for the latter group.
John Gore, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the department is committed to making sure that absent members of the military and their families and citizens living outside the United States have the right to vote and are given a “meaningful opportunity to vote in federal elections.”
“I commend the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the other state officials who worked with the department to reach a resolution to guarantee that the full protections of UOCAVA are provided to all overseas voters in the upcoming 2018 federal elections and in future federal elections,” Gore said in a prepared statement.
Governor Scott Walker’s office did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The Justice Department’s lawsuit said Wisconsin law meant that temporary overseas voters were not allowed to receive absentee ballots electronically and that the legislation at issue, passed in 2011, prevented clerks from faxing or emailing absentee ballots to the Americans who needed them to participate in elections.
One Wisconsin Institute sued over the restriction on voting rights, and in 2016 a federal court ordered the state to end the prohibition. Wisconsin appealed and told election officials that providing ballots by email was still optional, despite the court injunction, according to the government’s complaint.
In an email, Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said the agreement was unrelated to the One Wisconsin case. He noted that “many” temporary overseas voters had received absentee ballots by mail, and their votes were counted.
“We have been working with US-DOJ on military and overseas voting issues for many years, and when the Wisconsin Legislature did not resolve these remaining issues during the session, a consent decree was necessary,” Magney wrote. “The consent decree makes the process of getting absentee ballots to overseas voters much faster and treats them all equally as required by federal law.”
In addition to preparing for an August primary and November’s general election, the state must take steps to make sure it is in compliance with the law for all future elections, the Justice Department said.