Democratic Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has called at the absolute last minute for legislators to delay the state’s upcoming election and switch to vote by mail in order to prevent people from heading to the polls during the coronavirus pandemic. But it appears to be too late.
Days after being slammed by a U.S. District Court judge for not moving sooner to delay the state’s upcoming elections and with criticism growing even within the state Democratic Party’s ranks, Evers ordered the state legislature on Friday to hold a special session on Saturday. Evers wants the legislature to switch almost entirely to voting by mail and delay the deadline until mid-May 26, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also is calling for polling stations available for disabled voters to open for up to eight hours between now and May 19. Election officials in Milwaukee have said they only have enough personnel available to man five poll sites for Tuesday’s elections, meaning up to 50,000 anticipated voters could be funneled through a handful of locations while the outbreak in the state continues to spread.
In addition to the state’s presidential preference primary, the election will have voters approve or reject a crime referendum opposed by the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the state ACLU.
“This is a significant concern and a very unnecessary public health risk,” Evers told reporters on Friday, according to the Sentinel. “I can’t move this election or change it on my own. My hands are tied.”
Evers, alongside state legislative Republicans, had resisted delaying the April 7 election for weeks. He suddenly changed his mind in late March, asking for the state’s 3.3 million voters to receive absentee ballots by mail—which the state GOP instantly rejected as an impossible burden in the time left. Yesterday, a federal judge shot down lawsuits from voting rights groups demanding in-person voting be postponed, deadlines for filing absentee ballots be extended, and prevent photo ID requirements for remote voting from being enforced.
U.S. District Judge William Conley said the courts did not have jurisdiction to delay the election, but he did order the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots be moved to Friday and the deadline for submitting them to be moved from April 7 to April 13. (Republicans are appealing the latter half of the decision.) He also blasted the governor and legislature for not doing more further in advance, as other states have done. Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Louisiana have all delayed elections, with Alaska and Wyoming switching to mail-only, per PBS.
“The Wisconsin State Legislature and Governor apparently are hoping” voters are “willing to ignore the obvious risk to themselves and others of proceeding with in-person voting, will thread the needle to produce a reasonable voter turnout and no increase in the dissemination of COVID-19,” Conley wrote, according to Politico. “However unlikely this outcome may be, or ill-advised in terms of the public health risk and the likelihood of a successful election, the only role of a federal district court is to take steps that help avoid the impingement on citizens’ rights to exercise their voting franchise.”
Other critics have included Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich (who called not delaying the election “incredibly irresponsible”) and State Senator LaTonya Johnson (who said holding it on April 7 is “asinine”), according to the Sentinel. Evers’ move likely comes too late to make a difference, as he has insisted this whole time it is the GOP-controlled state legislature that needs to make the change. According to the Guardian, those Republicans have already said they would not do so during Saturday’s special session.
“We’re proceeding with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes we’re going to be able to cobble together a way (to administer) this election,” Wisconsin Elections Commission member Ann Jacobs told PBS. “We are putting people in dangerous situations that are unnecessary.”
“We are over our heads in chaos right now,” Milwaukee election committee executive director Neil Albrecht told the Guardian. “The level of public confusion will be so rampant and the access to voting will be so limited.”