Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) made a last minute push to stop in-person voting scheduled for Tuesday, as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in the state, but Republicans aren’t interested.
Evers called a special session of Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature on Saturday in an attempt to change the state’s Election Day into an extended mail-in ballot only election. He had proposed mandating that all registered voters receive an absentee ballot by May 19 and extending the deadline to turn them in to May 26.
But the legislative session lasted only a couple seconds Saturday afternoon; the state’s Republican leaders gaveled in and out, adjourning until Monday and leaving the in-person Election Day plans for Tuesday intact.
“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,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans, said in a statement.
Wisconsin has reported 2,112 positive cases of the coronavirus, and 56 related deaths, as of Saturday afternoon — more than double what the state was reporting last week. Residents have been under strict stay-at-home orders since March 25: All nonessential businesses have been shut down, and people who don’t live in the same household are not allowed to gather. Breaking the rules comes with jail time or fines.
Already, election officials are facing poll staff shortages and a backlog of absentee ballots. The majority of municipalities in Wisconsin have already reported a lack of poll workers. State election officials reported 111 jurisdictions that do not have enough people to staff a single polling place, and 60% of all Wisconsin towns and cities were reporting staffing shortages as of Monday. On Friday, the Milwaukee Election Commission announced the city was consolidating its usual 180 polling stations to just five.
For now, voters will have to choose between voting without proper social distance, or not showing up.
“We have grave concerns about holding an election as we’re just ramping up in dealing with 1,000 cases in Milwaukee County, let alone other areas in the state that may not have cases yet,” Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told reporters Friday.
Vos, the state assembly speaker, tweeted, “Milwaukee could easily use city staff to open polling places.” Evers has also offered using the national guard to staff polling stations.
Evers has tried to pin the blame on his Republican colleagues, though he himself appeared resigned to the April 7 election date last week; Friday was the first time he called for the primary to be moved. Previously, Evers had been calling for an expanded absentee ballot system — mailing ballots to all registered voters and loosening guidelines for absentee voting.
“There’s no real good answer to this,” Evers, who unseated the state’s former Republican governor Scott Walker in 2018, said in a video posted to his social media accounts Friday. “Folks, I can’t change this election or change the rules on my own. My hands are tied. And that’s why I spoke to legislative leaders about this weeks ago. I even publicly called on them to act. They made it clear they were unwilling to make changes.”
Republican officials seemed unfazed by the governor’s demand, criticizing him for attempting changes at the last minute.
Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, previously said that sending absentee ballots to all registered voters in the state was “not logistically feasible” and called it a “fantasy” and “ridiculous” last week. Other states — like Ohio, Wyoming and Alaska — have switched primary voting to mail-in ballots only.
Republicans are also fighting election changes in the courts. A federal judge censured Evers and Republicans last week for failing to address the election during a public health crisis and granted an extension for absentee ballots. Ballots now need to be received by 4 p.m. on April 13 to be counted. A federal appeals court upheld the April 13 deadline, but undid another provision that would have allowed voters to submit mail-in ballots without a witness signature.
Republican leaders in the state have already indicated they would like to fight the absentee ballot extension in state courts.
“We still have grave concerns about election security by allowing votes to be postmarked or submitted after Election Day, and plan to appeal that issue to the United States Supreme Court,” Fitzgerald and Vos said in a joint statement.
Wisconsin Democrats have already raised concerns about the political implications of low voter turnout in this election. On the ballot is a contentious race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. While technically a nonpartisan contest, incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly has been endorsed by President Donald Trump and has the support of Republicans. Kelly is looking to sew up a 10-year appointment, while his opponent, Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky, is hoping to weaken conservatives’ 5-2 majority on the court.
The outcome of this race could have an outsize impact on the state’s politics for the next decade, as Wisconsin gears up to redraw its congressional maps with data from the 2020 census.