Voters in Wisconsin will face a choice on April 7 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 Governor Tony Evers issued an order postponing the election for two months, the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 6 sided with Republicans who said he did not 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.
“There are few things we hold more sacred and that are more American than the right to vote. People have bled, fought, and died for the right to vote in this country,” said Governor Evers. “But in Wisconsin, thousands will wake up and have to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe. In this time of historic crisis, it is a shame that two branches of government in this state chose to pass the buck instead of taking responsibility for the health and safety of the people we were elected to serve.”
Wisconsin’s election date is written into state law. Only the Republican-controlled state legislature can postpone it, and legislative leaders have refused even to consider making April 7 an all-mail-in voting. For weeks, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Wisconsin GOP leaders have opposed considering any changes to the election that would accommodate public safety. Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald also rebuffed the governor’s call on April 3 for a special session of the legislature over the weekend to act on proposals for delaying the election.
Governor Evers said he had no other options after the state court ruled against him. 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.
“No one should have to choose between the right to vote and their health or the health of their loved ones. At the core, with the election proceeding as scheduled, that is what we are asking people to do,” said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
The tension in Wisconsin over whether and how to proceed with the election has been building for weeks, illustrating how the coronavirus has upended politics during an election year. Governor Evers himself had questioned whether he had the power to reschedule the election, but said the worsening situation of COVID-19 deaths made clear there was no way to safely move forward with in-person voting. The Governor 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,” Governor Evers added. “They’re saying they’re scared. They’re scared of going to the polls.”
As of Monday, April 6, nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots had been requested but only about 57% of those had been returned. It was unclear how many of the outstanding 539,000 ballots will be in the hands of voters in time to meet the April 7 postmark deadline.
Wisconsin Democratic state Senator 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. Representative Mark Pocan said conservatives on the courts and Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature thought it was okay for the public to jeopardize their health in order to vote
“Each person will have to make their individual decision, and if it is to vote, please do it safely,” Representative Pocan said.
Ahead of the Wisconsin primary, thousands of poll workers said they would not 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.
“So many people died for the right to vote. By assassination, by lynching, by burning, so many died. Died at the hands of racists, white nationalists and those who cling to power regardless of the cost to their fellow Americans or a fully functioning democracy,” said Dr. Kenneth Cole. “And now, as the pandemic rages with the highest rates of death among our African-American community in Milwaukee, more will die needlessly exercising these same rights.”