Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) ordered the state to shut down its in-person election scheduled for Tuesday after failing to convince state Republicans to change Election Day rules to account for the coronavirus pandemic.
Evers’ executive order delays in-person voting until June 9, 2020, unless the state legislature approves a different date for in-person voting.
The order comes just days after Evers told Wisconsinites that his “hands are tied” in changing the election date. Evers has already declared a coronavirus public health emergency in the state, but state laws aren’t clear whether that gives him the authority to change the election date without a law passed by the state legislature.
“It could end up in the Supreme Court yet today, but the bottom line is the people of Wisconsin, they don’t care about the fighting between Democrats and Republicans — they’re scared,” Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of his decision to resort to an executive order.
State Republican leaders vowed to “immediately” challenge the order in the state Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority. Adding to the confusion, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe told election clerks to prepare for holding the election as originally scheduled on Tuesday as Republicans challenge the order in the courts.
“This is another last minute flip flop from the governor on the April 7th election,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, said in a joint statement. “Governor Evers cannot unilaterally run the state.”
The governor’s order cites Wisconsin state law that allows the governor to issue an order when “he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property.″
On Friday, Evers called a special session of Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature for the weekend in an attempt to change the state’s election from in-person voting to an extended mail-in ballot. But that last-minute plea to GOP lawmakers failed.
State Republican leaders balked at Evers’ proposal mandating that all registered voters receive an absentee ballot by May 19 and extending the deadline to turn them in until May 26. The legislative session lasted only seconds, as Republican leaders asserted that the election counts as essential and should go ahead as scheduled.
“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” Fitzgerald and Vos said in a statement.
Wisconsin has reported more than 2,300 positive cases of the coronavirus, and more than 70 related deaths ― more than double the number of cases the state reported last week. Evers imposed a stay-at-home order on March 25, shuttering all nonessential businesses and forbidding people who don’t live in the same household from gathering.
But even Evers seemed resigned to the April 7 election date as of last week. Friday was the first time the governor said he wanted to postpone the date, but he said he was legally unable to do so without the approval of the state legislature.
Changing the election date in Wisconsin is particularly complicated because the ballot also includes local and state races for seats with term limits, some as soon as this month.
There’s also a contentious race for the state Supreme Court. Technically a nonpartisan race, the incumbent candidate, Justice Dan Kelly, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Wisconsin Democrats have raised concerns that Republican are attempting to suppress voter turnout to give Kelly an easier path to a 10-year term on the court over liberal Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky.
Republican officials, however, say changing the date for Election Day, or moving to a mail-in only election, would create too much confusion
The prospect of holding an in-person election during the pandemic has been causing chaos in the state for weeks. Election officials are facing poll staff shortages and a backlog of absentee ballots. As of Monday, 1.3 million absentee ballots had been requested in the state.
State election officials reported 111 jurisdictions did not have enough people to staff a single polling place. As of a week ago, 60% of all Wisconsin towns and cities were reporting staffing shortages. On Friday, the Milwaukee Election Commission announced the city was consolidating its usual 180 polling stations to just five. The state was preparing to deploy 5,000 members of the National Guard to staff the election.
Last week, a federal judge extended the absentee voting deadline from April 7 to April 13 — an extension that was upheld in an appeals court. Republican leaders have been fighting to restrict that extension to ballots postmarked by April 7. With Evers’ new order, they will have an even bigger fight on their hands.
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