UPDATE: Election back on, extended absentee voting overruled by Supreme Court

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FILE – In this Thursday Feb. 6, 2020 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers holds a press conference in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin policymakers scrambled Wednesday, March 18, 2020, to help displaced workers, shuttered bars and restaurants, and others reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, including asking the federal government for more medical equipment and seeking loans to help small businesses survive. Gov. Evers, a Democrat, was to speak with Republican legislative leaders about his plan for a far-reaching emergency package of legislation to help those struggling with the outbreak. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP File)

Monday 4/6/2020 7:40 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Voters in Wisconsin will face a choice Tuesday of participating in a presidential primary election or heeding warnings from public health officials to stay away from large crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hours after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an order postponing the election for two months, the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday sided with Republicans who said he didn’t have the authority to reschedule the race on his own. Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court quickly followed with a ruling blocking Democratic efforts to extend absentee voting.

The decisions leave Wisconsin as the only state with an election scheduled in April that is proceeding as planned. As other states prepare to vote in May or June, Wisconsin will be closely watched for signs that fears of the coronavirus may depress turnout or cause other problems at the polls.

Evers said he had no other options after the state court ruled against him.

“There’s not a Plan B. There’s not a Plan C,” Evers said earlier Monday.

Joe Biden already has a commanding delegate lead over Bernie Sanders and the Wisconsin results aren’t likely to slow his march to the Democratic presidential nomination. But the tumult in one of the most critical general election battlegrounds was a reminder of how the coronavirus has upended politics during an election year. Beyond the shifts in the primary calendar, Biden and President Donald Trump have not been able to hold in-person campaign events and have moved most of their operations online.

The tension in Wisconsin over whether and how to proceed with the election has been building for weeks. Evers and Republicans initially agreed it was imperative for the election to proceed because thousands of local offices are on the ballot Tuesday for terms that begin in two weeks. There is also a state Supreme Court election.

Evers himself had questioned whether he had the power to reschedule the election, but said the worsening situation, including an increase in COVID-19 deaths from 56 on Friday to 77 on Monday, made clear there was no way to safely move forward.

Evers said he sought the delay because he was motivated by protecting public health, not politics, “The people of Wisconsin, the majority of them, don’t spend all their waking hours thinking about are Republicans or Democrats getting the upper hand here,” Evers said earlier Monday. “They’re saying they’re scared. They’re scared of going to the polls.

He was thwarted by conservatives on two courts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-2, with four conservatives in support and two liberals against, that Evers lacked the authority to move the election on his own.

The U.S. Supreme Court split 5-4, with the five Republican-appointed justices siding with the national and state party to overturn a lower court ruling that expanded absentee voting. In an unsigned opinion, the court said absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by Tuesday evening or postmarked by Tuesday, although they can arrive at clerks’ offices as late as April 13.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for her liberal colleagues that the lower court acted amid the virus outbreak “to safeguard the availability of absentee voting in Wisconsin’s spring election. This Court now intervenes at the eleventh hour to prevent voters who have timely requested absentee ballots from casting their votes.

Ginsburg said the coronavirus outbreak had caused a surge in absentee ballot requests and thousands of voters who requested them will not have received their ballots by Tuesday. “The Court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement,” she wrote.

As of Monday, nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots had been requested but only about 57% of those had been returned. It’s unclear how many of the outstanding 539,000 ballots will be in voters’ hands by Tuesday to meet the April 7 postmark deadline.

The conservatives said “the dissent’s rhetoric is entirely misplaced and completely overlooks the fact that the deadline for receiving ballots was already extended to accommodate Wisconsin voters, from April 7 to April 13.”

Wisconsin Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Republicans fought efforts to delay the election because they want to suppress turnout, particularly in Democrat-heavy Milwaukee, because that will benefit Republicans, “Democrats have always been good about getting out the vote on the day of,” Erpenbach said. “If you’re looking at the newspapers, watching TV, you know right now it’s dangerous.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan said the U.S. Supreme Court’s was “brazenly suppressing thousands of voters in Wisconsin.”

“This is NOT how democracy works,” Pocan tweeted.

Ohio saw a similar eleventh-hour flurry the day before its primary last month. After the Republican governor and secretary of state failed to persuade a judge to shift the election date, the state health director stepped in and ordered voting shut down. Legislators set a new, almost all-mail primary for April 28, sparking new legal challenges from voting rights groups, but a federal judge on Friday said the election could go forward.

Ahead of the Wisconsin primary, thousands of poll workers said they wouldn’t work, leading Milwaukee to reduce its planned number of polling sites from 180 to just five. More than 2,500 National Guard troops were dispatched to staff the polls. They were also distributing supplies, including hand sanitizer, to polling sites across the state. In Madison, city workers were erecting Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.

George Dunst, 76, of Madison, who has volunteered at his local polling site for nearly every election since he retired, said he’s not going Tuesday amid fears of contracting COVID-19.

“No matter what safety precautions you take, there’s going to be exposure,” he said. “Who knows who comes into the polling place.”

Wisconsin election back on Supreme Court rules

MONDAY 4/6/2020 4:58 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin’s presidential primary election will proceed Tuesday under an order from the state Supreme Court that came just hours after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to postpone voting as part of a last-ditch effort amid growing fears over the coronavirus.

The court ruled 4-2 on Monday that Evers lacked the authority to move the election on his own. Conservatives control the court 5-2, but one of the conservative justices is up for reelection Tuesday and didn’t participate in the ruling.

Evers had previously opposed moving the election and said he didn’t have the authority to shift the timing unilaterally. But he changed course Monday, ordering a delay of in-person voting to June 9, as poll sites closed because nervous volunteers were unwilling to staff them and as criticism about holding the election grew.

The governor said his order was the last hope for stopping the election. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, which represented Evers, did not immediately respond to a message about possible further legal action.

ORIGINAL STORY: Wisconsin governor signs executive order suspending Tuesday’s election

MONDAY 4/6/2020 12:50 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. (WFRV) – Governor Tony Evers has signed an Executive Order suspending all in-person voting for the April 7 spring election, rescheduling it for June 9.

In the Executive Order, Gov. Evers also directs the Legislature to meet on Tuesday, April 7, during a special session to address the election date. In a Monday release, Gov. Evers say that if the Legislature does not enact legislation to change the new election date, in-person voting will occur on June 9.

“Today, I signed an executive order suspending in-person voting for tomorrow’s election. Frankly, there’s no good answer to this problem—I wish it were easy. 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,” said Gov. Evers. “But as municipalities are consolidating polling locations, and absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing. The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order today.”

On Monday morning, the Legislature decided to go ahead with in-person voting on Tuesday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Evers says all ballots already cast in the 2020 Spring election will remain valid and will be tallied in conjunction with the new in-person voting date.

According to Scott Bauer of the Associated Press, Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos and State Senator Scott Fitzgerald say they will immediately appeal Gov. Evers’ order to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson said in a tweet seen below that he will issue an order later Monday to close all polling locations throughout the county as an addition to Gov. Evers’ order.

Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich tweeted his appreciation for Gov. Evers’ order, saying “The right decision is not always the easy one. Thank you, Governor Evers, for taking appropriate and lawful action to protect the rights and health of our citizenry.”

Meagan Wolfe, Administrator with the Wisconsin Elections Commission, released a statement to local clerks, saying:

“While the Governor has called for moving the election, we can be certain there will be very fast-moving litigation.

Therefore, we must continue to making preparation in earnest for tomorrow. If the election is moved to the 9th we will adjust accordingly, but all we can do today is prepare for tomorrow.

I know too much has already been asked of you, but we ask you to proceed with your Election Day preparations as we do not know the outcome of any possible litigation and we need to be prepared if the election is held tomorrow.”

Chairman Andrew Hitt of the Wisconsin GOP released a statement, saying, “It is tragic to see such a reckless disregard for the Constitution from Gov. Tony Evers who just days ago admitted he did not have the power to change the election. His admission will weigh heavily on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision, so we are left to conclude that the Governor is playing politics with something as precious as our democracy. The Republican Party will continue to fight for the rule of law.”

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