Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers on Friday mounted a last-minute effort to try and delay that state’s upcoming presidential primary – slated for Tuesday, April 7 – saying the election posed an “unnecessary health risk” in light of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
Evers signed an executive order calling for a special Saturday session of the state legislature to try and delay the vote, but the efforts are likely to meet with resistance from the Republican-controlled body. GOP leaders in the state have opposed such measures and legally challenged a court order to make absentee voting easier.
State leaders have insisted on pushing ahead with next week’s vote despite the blizzard of lawsuits and hundreds of poll workers walking off the job. Evers has suggested making the primary almost entirely vote-by-mail and extending the deadline to submit those votes until late May.
All other state primaries scheduled for April have been delayed to some extent. Wisconsin election officials expressed scepticism about whether theirs could run smoothly under the circumstances. A judge extended absentee voting to April 13, but declined to postpone the election.
“We’re proceeding with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes [that] we’re going to be able to cobble together a way [to administer] this election,” said Ann Jacobs, who sits on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which oversees voting in the state. “We are putting people in dangerous situations that are unnecessary.”
The primary comes as US presidential candidate Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over rival Bernie Sanders, but hasn’t formally clinched the Democratic nomination.
With social distancing mandates taking hold, more than 100 Wisconsin municipalities have said they lack enough poll workers to staff voting sites. Evers, who has the state under a stay-at-home order, has called on the US National Guard to help fill that gap. And the state faces another problem: so many people have requested mail-in ballots that it is likely to take days to count them all.
Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii and Louisiana were set to hold elections Saturday, but they’ve pushed those contests back. Louisiana’s presidential primary is now set for June 20. Democrats in Alaska and Wyoming have decided to hold their party-run contests by mail only, and have pushed back the deadline for turning in ballots.
No one knows if May or June will be any better for elections, but officials say postponing even for a few weeks gives them a chance to plan for public safety, including expanding the use of absentee ballots, recruiting more poll workers and acquiring cleaning supplies for polling sites.
Evers and Republican legislative leaders initially called for sticking to the scheduled date. Besides the presidential primary, the election will decide hundreds of local races. Evers said a delay could leave those offices vacant for weeks during the crisis.
What to do about the election in Wisconsin has now devolved into a partisan battle. Evers mulled shifting the state to an all-mail election, but said he couldn’t do it on his own. He asked the Republican-controlled state legislature to change statutes to allow local clerks to mail all registered voters an absentee ballot, a request the state GOP blasted as a “fantasy” that couldn’t be done in time.
While local clerks are bracing for a deluge of absentee ballots – more than one million have been issued, crushing previous records – poll workers are reluctant to put their health at risk.
Emily Bell, a 39-year-old Milwaukee lawyer, was looking forward to her first stint as a poll worker. She still plans to do it, but she’s fearful of interacting with voters. A Facebook photo shows her with a bandanna wrapped around her face and holding up an absentee ballot. She said she has found an N95 mask from a friend in the medical field and plans, to shed her clothes and jump in the shower as soon as her shift on Tuesday ends.
“I woke up panicking one morning,” she said. “I called my sister crying and said, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ [But] it’s really important work, and somebody has to do it.”
On Thursday, US District Judge William Conley rejected a request by Democrats and several liberal groups to postpone the election, criticising state leaders for proceeding but calling it inappropriate for a federal court “to act as the state’s chief health official”. Conley did extend absentee voting to April 13, and on Friday he ordered clerks to withhold any results until that new deadline.
“There’s no good excuse to have this election,” said Dan Toland, mayor of River Falls, a city of 15,500 on the Minnesota border about 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the Twin Cities. He said his city has closed two of its five polling sites after half of the city’s poll workers quit. “All we hear from the governor is we’ve got to flatten the curve and then they hold an open election,” he said. “Every city in Wisconsin is under so much stress it isn’t funny.”