MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin’s Democratic governor on Monday suspended in-person voting for the state’s pivotal primary election set for Tuesday, after weeks of chaos and confusion in which election officials were scrambling to ensure safe access to the polls in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Governor Tony Evers’ executive order calls off all in-person voting for Wisconsin’s April 7 primary election and reschedules the primary for June 9.
The executive order also calls the Wisconsin Legislature into a special session to commence at 2 p.m. Tuesday to consider the scheduling of the new in-person voting date.
Evers had already called the legislature into special session with a separate executive order on Thursday to work on cancelling in-person voting on its own terms. That special session was supposed to take place on Saturday, but both chambers of the GOP-controlled legislature convened and adjourned the special session within seconds without any discussion, a move they repeated Monday morning.
Citing the unprecedented challenges municipalities have had organizing a safe, secure primary in light of Covid-19’s spread, Evers said that “absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing.”
“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,” the governor said. “The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order today.”
Evers clarified that all ballots already cast in the April 7 primary will remain valid and will be tallied in conjunction with the new in-person voting date.
Within minutes of Evers’ order, Republicans in control of the Wisconsin Legislature, who have steadfastly resisted cancelling in-person voting, promptly declared their intention to challenge Evers’ executive order Monday.
In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, stated “we are immediately challenging this executive order in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
“The clerks of this state should stand ready to proceed,” the Republicans said. “The governor’s executive order is clearly an unconstitutional overreach.”
Making good on its promise, the Republican-majority legislature filed an emergency petition with the state high court Monday afternoon, claiming Evers exceeded his constitutional and statutory authority by unilaterally changing the election date at the 11th hour in defiance of Wisconsin statutes and well-established separations of powers. The legislature’s petition and injunction motion ask the court to enjoin Evers’ order and declare it unlawful.
The legislators pointed out that Evers himself repeatedly stated he cannot move the election unilaterally, and even though a federal judge stated the same, that is exactly what the governor has done.
It was only in the last week or so that Evers had broken with the legislature on cancelling in-person voting for Tuesday’s primary. Until then, a loose consensus existed between the two entities which routinely snipe at each other over partisan policy, cultivating a working relationship that is at best icy and at worst outright acrimonious.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which tanked global markets and upended civic life around the world, has cast the closely watched Wisconsin primary election into a state of doubt and heaved upon state officials, election personnel and citizens an unprecedented dilemma.
Evers’ initial responses to the pandemic were to declare a public health emergency on March 12, followed by a March 24 safer-at-home order shuttering nonessential businesses and requiring residents to stay in their homes and limit interactions with others as much as possible. Last week, the governor mobilized the Wisconsin Army National Guard to assist poll workers and help with serious shortages of personnel and supplies reported by more than 100 state jurisdictions.
The stridently partisan fight over carrying out the Wisconsin primary while enacting safety measures to prevent spreading Covid-19 has resulted in no less than half a dozen lawsuits filed since mid-March.
A consolidated action originally presided over by U.S. District Judge William Conley, a Barack Obama appointee, was appealed to the Seventh Circuit in Chicago by state and national Republicans after Conley changed the absentee ballot receipt deadline from April 7 to April 13 and waived a rule requiring a witness signature on absentee ballots, provided that the voter include written affirmation of their inability to secure a witness due to Covid-19 and the ballot is otherwise valid.
Late Friday, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit upheld the absentee voter deadline extensions but said in an unsigned order that Conley went too far with his rule change regarding witness signatures, finding that those changes are the purview of the six-member bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Among the parties bringing legal challenges, whose arguments run the gamut from suspending or waiving certain elections rules to delaying the primary whole cloth, have been voter mobilization groups, black and Latino advocacy groups, unions, the League of Women Voters and other state officials.
Green Bay, home of the NFL’s Packers, and its city clerk sued on March 24 in Green Bay federal court to cancel in-person voting and delay the election, but that suit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge William Griesbach, a George W. Bush appointee, because the parties did not have standing to sue in their official capacities.
Wisconsin state senator and mayoral candidate Lena Taylor, D- Milwaukee, sued in Milwaukee federal court last Thursday seeking to delay the primary until September, arguing that even absentee voting and online election procedures preclude poorer, largely black voters with technological hurdles from casting their ballot. That case was dismissed without prejudice on Sunday by Chief U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper, another Obama appointee.
The race for Milwaukee’s mayor and county executive are on the primary ballot, along with Wisconsin’s presidential primary and a fiercely competitive race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court between current conservative Justice Daniel Kelly and liberal Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission’s administrator Meagan Wolfe put out a statement on Monday shortly after Evers’ executive order stating that “while the governor has called for moving the election, we can be certain there will be very fast moving litigation,” which jibes with GOP legislators’ promise.
Wolfe clarified that election officials should still prepare for an in-person election on Tuesday given the certainty of litigation challenging Evers’ order.
Wisconsin clerks and poll workers attempting to execute a sound election, assailed by mixed messages and political posturing from state officials, have been besieged in recent days by unclear directives, lack of healthy bodies to work the polls, supply shortages and roughly 1.3 million absentee ballot requests statewide.
For its part, the Milwaukee Election Commission announced late last week there would only be five polling places open for the entire city of nearly 600,000 instead of the usual 180, in part due to there being less than 400 poll workers available instead of the 1,400 the city normally has.
The Democratic National Committee, which brought one of the lawsuits in Madison federal court over the election on March 18, announced last week that the Democratic National Convention scheduled for July 13-16 in Milwaukee had been postponed until mid-August due to the coronavirus.