Wisconsin primary to proceed Tuesday after court blocks delay

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — The Wisconsin primary will proceed as scheduled Tuesday after the state Supreme Court blocked a last-minute attempt by Gov. Tony Evers to delay in-person voting by executive order.

The state court, voting 4-2, agreed with Republicans who had argued that the governor lacked the authority to change the date of the election, meaning that in-person voting will go on despite his stay-at-home order amid concerns about the coronavirus.

The ruling came hours after Evers issued an executive order suspending the in-person voting Tuesday and asking the Legislature to postpone it until June 9 or a date of their choosing. The state’s Republican leadership challenged the order at the state Supreme Court and told county clerks to be ready for a primary on Tuesday.

Fifteen states and Puerto Rico have either delayed primaries or switched to vote-by-mail as Americans obey stay-at-home orders as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, but none has had as dramatic a fight over it as Wisconsin.

Evers had initially opposed any delay in the vote, but he said Monday that concerns over public health caused him to change his mind. Wisconsin has more than 2,000 coronavirus cases and has had 73 deaths from the disease. Evers issued a stay-at-home order for the state in late March.

“Frankly, there’s no good answer to this problem — I wish it were easy,” Evers said Monday in announcing the order. “I have been asking everyone to do their part to help keep our families, our neighbors, and our communities safe, and I had hoped that the Legislature would do its part — just as the rest of us are — to help keep people healthy and safe.”

But Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, and his state Senate counterpart, Scott Fitzgerald, said the governor didn’t have the power to cancel the election.

“The clerks of this state should stand ready to proceed with the election,” Vos and Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The governor’s executive order is clearly an unconstitutional overreach.”

In a separate dispute over the Tuesday primary, a federal judge last week extended absentee balloting by a week to April 13. That led to multiple lawsuits, with the state and national GOP seeking to stop the judge’s order with a last-minute request to the U.S. Supreme Court.

More than 1.2 million Wisconsin voters have requested absentee ballots, while polling places have been dramatically reduced.

Polling places rely on an army of paid volunteers, often retirees. But that pool dried up amid fears of the coronavirus, leading Evers to call out the state National Guard to help staff a reduced number of polling stations.

In Milwaukee, the number of polling places has dropped from 188 to just five.

Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson, who helps municipalities run elections, is sending 270 members of the National Guard put under his oversight to various towns around the county to help run the election.

The state election commission is providing poll workers with 25,000 masks, gloves, paper towels and spray bottles filled with sanitizer made by a Madison distillery. More than 1 million black ballpoint pens are being distributed so that each voter can have their own pen.

Christenson said he personally drove his share of the pens — about 65,000 — around the county in his own car so that he didn’t put a staffer at risk.

Plans to change the primary foundered over differing views on how to conduct it. State Republicans argued the election should only be postponed or voting rules changed by an act of the state legislature, while Democrats sought to use lawsuits to force some changes. Evers finally called for a special session last weekend, but Republicans said it was too last minute and adjourned without taking any action.

“As a party, our position has been that there’s one of two ways this can happen, either follow the law as they are currently written or the legislature and the governor could have passed a bill to change them,” said state Republican Chairman Andrew Hitt.

A federal judge also extended the deadline for local elections boards to receive absentee ballots from 8 p.m. on Tuesday to 4 p.m. on Monday, April 13. Republicans have appealed that to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to announce its decision sometime Monday.

Despite the precautions, Christenson said he was frustrated by the fact that voting could be going ahead on Tuesday, arguing that Republicans were trying to limit Democratic votes in urban areas like Milwaukee in an election with a Supreme Court candidate on the ballot.

“I think there’s danger in voting in person tomorrow,” he said.


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