Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state legislature has rejected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s last-second bid to delay the state’s fast-approaching elections in light of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
On Saturday, state lawmakers ended a special session intended to consider Evers’s request to make the election on Tuesday, April 7, an all-mail election and to allow ballots to be sent in through late May within seconds of convening.
That means that despite the fact public gatherings in Wisconsin are banned and residents are living under a stay-at-home order Evers instituted in March, the state appears set to hold an in-person election that will include the state’s Democratic presidential primary and a vote on a state Supreme Court justice.
Wisconsin, which has more than 2,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of April 5, is the only state out of 11 originally scheduled to hold Democratic presidential primaries in April that has not postponed or substantially changed the way people can vote in nominating contests.
On Saturday, Wisconsin Republicans not only rebuffed the attempt to cancel in-person voting but also asked the US Supreme Court to block a recent lower court ruling that extended the absentee ballot deadline in Wisconsin by six days.
Republicans accused Evers of undermining the electoral process by pushing for a change in procedure just days before the primary.
“In elections during uncertain times, it’s important that no one questions the process,” Republican legislative leaders Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement on Saturday. “That’s why it’s so disappointing that Governor Evers has flip-flopped on the very question that we have been discussing over the past month.”
But Evers, who enacted the stay-at-home order on March 24, said that the GOP was being irresponsible as estimates of health risks have changed.
“Republicans in the Legislature are playing politics with public safety and ignoring the urgency of this public health crisis. It’s wrong. No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote,” said Evers in a statement on Saturday. “Being a good leader means listening to the experts, being willing to adjust our course based on the science, and making the tough decisions necessary to protect the people of our state.”
Evers has also expressed concern over whether voters willing to defy the stay-at-home order will be able to find a place to cast their ballots, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser has written:
In Milwaukee, which typically has 180 polling places open on an election day, city officials expected that they would only have enough workers to keep 10 to 12 sites open. More than 100 of the state’s municipalities reported that they lacked enough regular poll workers to staff even one polling place.
The governor attempted to solve this problem by ordering the National Guard to staff polling sites — but Wisconsin’s attorney general has said this emergency measure can only do so much, and that even with guards members as poll workers, there will be staffing shortages on Tuesday.
While the state legislature is the only branch of Wisconsin’s government that has the formal authority to reschedule elections, according to Politico, Evers has some options available to him to attempt to delay the primary — but he appears unlikely to exercise them. For instance, Politico reports that Evers could try to ask a health official to close the polls, but likely won’t because he is concerned about depleting political capital that will be needed for coronavirus legislation in the coming weeks. And such a move would face legal challenges that could result in decisions that would limit the power of the governor in the future.
Holding the primaries during a pandemic is a political matter
In his analysis of the Wisconsin primary, Millhiser has described the back-and-forth between Evers and Republican lawmakers over delaying the election as a highly politicized process:
Armed with [a majority], Republican leaders have dismissed Evers’s proposals with scorn and contempt. In response to Evers’s suggestion that the state implement automatic vote-by-mail, for example, Republican State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald accused Evers of “lying directly to Wisconsinites about this even being remotely possible” and dismissed his plan as a “hoax.”
Many Democrats, meanwhile, attribute the worse possible motives to Republicans. On Twitter, voting rights attorney and former Obama White House lawyer Daniel Jacobson accused Republicans of refusing “to delay the primary” and to provide for “more mail voting, seemingly on the calculus that COVID will more likely affect voting in heavily Dem areas,” skewing Tuesday’s state supreme court race towards the conservative incumbent.
It is true that Democratic areas of the state have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 and could face severe polling place shortages. Milwaukee County, for instance has 1,112 confirmed cases as of April 5, and before the National Guard was called in, Milwaukee itself warned as few as 10 of its 180 polling places would be staffed.
However, in an effort to ensure those infected with the coronavirus and those unable to venture out to vote were not disenfranchised, a federal judge’s ruling on Thursday expanded the ability of voters to cast their ballots by mail.
While the deadline for absentee ballots was originally Tuesday, April 7 — the day of the in-person primary, Judge William Conley ordered the deadline for ballots to be extended to 4 pm on April 13, and loosened a requirement that stated absentee ballots must be signed in front of a witness — something challenging for those self-quarantining and those living alone.
“While Conley’s decision is not the ideal remedy for many Wisconsin voters, it is also likely to rescue tens of thousands of voters from disenfranchisement,” Millhiser wrote in an analysis of the ruling. “And it will potentially prevent an election where voters lose their right to vote based on arbitrary factors like how quickly the postal service delivers their ballot.”
Republicans in the state appealed the decision. On Friday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied their request to reinstate the original mail-in ballot deadline, but did block Conley’s loosening of witness requirements, saying it opened the door to fraud. That means absentee ballots sent in without a witness certification — something that’s hard for people who live alone to obtain when the state is under lockdown — won’t be counted toward the final tally.
Following this ruling, the Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Republicans filed an emergency petition to the Supreme Court on Saturday, again asking for the ballot deadline to be moved back and requesting the court to act no later than Monday.