MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Wisconsin’s Democratic governor on Friday called for the state’s upcoming April primary to be conducted solely via mail-in absentee ballot, following the lead of other states that have changed their primary process as the coronavirus outbreak worsens.
In a video released Friday afternoon, Governor Tony Evers addressed concerns from Wisconsinites about participating in the state’s April 7 primary while also ensuring everyone’s safety as the Covid-19 virus endangers public health and snarls governments and volatile markets across the globe.
“And I say to them, I hear you,” Evers said.
The governor called on the Wisconsin Legislature to mail an absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state, allow those absentee ballots to be postmarked the day of the election and extend the amount of time municipal clerks have to count the influx of absentee ballots.
More than 600,000 Wisconsin voters have requested absentee ballots for the primary. That is around 10 times as many as were requested for the April 2019 election, and more than three times the roughly 170,000 absentee ballots cast in the November 2018 midterm election when Evers was voted into office.
“I am hopeful that all of us can agree that everyone should be able to exercise their right to vote, and that means we have to work together to ensure people are safe while they do it,” the governor said Friday.
Evers initially declared a public health emergency on March 12 in response to the threat of Covid-19 before issuing what he has called a “safer-at-home” order on Tuesday, shuttering nonessential businesses and requiring residents to stay in their homes and limit interactions with others as much as possible through April 24.
The Badger State had 842 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of midday Friday, a tally that has doubled in the past week, and 15 deaths.
Evers stressed in his Friday announcement that “this is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, this is an issue of democracy. I don’t care who gets the credit, I just want to make sure that everyone has the chance to cast their ballot this April.”
Republicans at the outset are not buying Evers’ idea, however. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, issued a statement Friday calling the idea of shipping millions of absentee ballots in the next 10 days “a complete fantasy,” going so far as to say “acting like this is doable is a hoax.”
Until now there had been a loose consensus between Evers and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature to avoid delaying the primary, which features the presidential primary as well as a critical election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court between current conservative Justice Daniel Kelly and liberal Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky. April’s election will also decide the races for Milwaukee’s mayor and county executive.
The exponential spread of the deadly coronavirus has heaped extra tension onto a pivotal primary already fraught with partisan sniping, bureaucratic complications and a flood of last-minute litigation.
Four federal lawsuits have been filed in Wisconsin district courts in the past week over the election, all of them at least in part aimed at the six-member bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.
The first, brought by the Democratic National Committee and the Wisconsin Democratic Party last Wednesday, asked the court to extend absentee voting deadlines and suspend certain voter-registration rules due to disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge William Conley, a Barack Obama appointee, agreed last Friday to extend online voter registration until March 30, but declined to take up the Democrats’ other requests pending a more robust record.
Another lawsuit followed on Wednesday from the city of Green Bay, calling for all in-person voting procedures to be scrapped and for the entire mail-in only election to be postponed until June 2, making that the date by which all mail-in ballots would have to be counted. Filed in Green Bay federal court, the case is presided over by U.S. District Judge William Griesbach, a George W. Bush appointee.
Green Bay, home of the NFL’s Packers, cited its severe shortage of poll workers and lack of basic supplies like hand sanitizer, coupled with a dearth of guidance from election officials and the state, as rationale for pushing back the election.
Yet another lawsuit came in Madison federal court on Thursday from two unions, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, black and Latino advocacy organizations and voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, also calling for the election to be delayed largely along the same guidelines Green Bay laid out.
Revered Greg Lewis, the head of Souls to the Polls and one of the plaintiffs in Thursday’s suit, has reported that he himself has contracted Covid-19.
Unique to Souls to the Polls’ filing is the contention that minority voters in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin’s main urban centers, are being unconstitutionally and disproportionately affected by the whirlwind disruptions to the electoral process brought on by Covid-19. Milwaukee County, home to nearly a million people, has reported eight of the state’s 15 coronavirus fatalities, all of them black residents over 50.
Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson implored for the election to be conducted by mail on Friday, stating in a letter to state officials that “we cannot emphasize enough that right now we do not have the ability to conduct a safe election in Milwaukee County.”
As if there is not enough drama, Republicans in the state have charged clerks in Milwaukee and Dane counties, the latter of which is home to Madison, with breaking the law by allowing absentee voters to bypass photo ID requirements by stating they are “indefinitely confined” due to the coronavirus. The state GOP has condemned the move as an unconstitutional circumvention of election laws, but the clerks argued it only targets infirm, ill or elderly voters who would already have a hard time getting to the polls.
A fourth federal suit – again in Madison federal court, brought by the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans and others on Thursday – challenges the requirement for an adult witness to sign absentee ballots, which the filing argues is impractical or impossible given social distancing directives including Evers’ safer-at-home order.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission, which has been largely mum on the flurry of lawsuits, is meeting late Friday afternoon to discuss the pending litigation and election day procedures thrown into confusion and chaos by Covid-19.