One by one, states scheduled to hold presidential or down-ballot primaries during the coronavirus pandemic have either postponed their events or systematically reformatted them to depend entirely on voting by mail. But against all logic and reason, thanks in no small part to Republican legislative obstinance, Wisconsin is lurching toward an April 7 primary for presidential, judicial, and local offices in a state of feverish chaos. The situation was punctuated on April 2 by a judicial ruling from federal district court Judge William Conley that excoriated state lawmakers for failing to postpone the primary, even as he made extraordinary provisions for people to vote by mail in a state where that hasn’t been common. And then on April 3 Democratic Governor Tony Evers called the Republican legislators into a special session to ban in-person voting entirely and extend voting by mail until May–advice they almost certainly won’t take.
As Judge Conley noted, it would require a coordinated action by the legislature and governor Tony Evers to move the date of the primary; under existing state law some local offices at stake on April 7 would fall vacant if the election was simply delayed. More generally, Republicans in the legislature have been adamant about moving ahead, even as they fought efforts by Democrats to massively expand voting by mail. In particular, legislators have opposed Evers’s calls for mailing absentee ballots to all the state’s registered voters, as the New York Times reported:
[T]he upheaval from the pandemic has set up a clash between the Democratic governor and Democratic lawmakers on one side — who want to expand voting by mail, drop photo ID requirements for absentee requests, extend deadlines for voters to return ballots and give clerks more time to count them — and the Republican majorities in the Legislature on the other, who are largely intent on moving forward with voting.
Mr. Evers cannot send the ballots on his own; he asked the Legislature to convene and approve a measure to do so. But Scott Fitzgerald, the State Senate majority leader, decried the request as a “fantasy,” and Robin Vos, the speaker of the State Assembly, said Republicans in his chamber were “united as a caucus in rejecting the governor’s request” to mail the ballots.
Republicans opposing a universal opportunity to vote by mail (Wisconsin already does not require a specific excuse to vote by mail, but does require that voters proactively apply to do so) cite the logistical difficulty of moving in that direction on such short notice, but also seem satisfied with the idea of a low-turnout election, which would arguably help some of their candidates, such as key State Supreme Court swing justice Daniel Kelly. Many Democrats are upset with Evers for not more aggressively pushing for a delay, or even taking questionably legal unilateral measures like Ohio governor Mike DeWine did last month in stopping his state’s March 17 primary at the last minute. As Politico notes, Evers’s own stay-in-place order in response to the coronavirus sends some rather mixed signals:
“There’s this enormous conflict between what we need to do in a democracy in the midst of a pandemic. You can’t have a stay-at-home order but then tell millions of people to go stand in line and congregate near one another across the state,” said Racine Mayor Cory Mason. “Having an election in the middle of a stay-at-home order makes no sense. It did not have to be this way.”
The viability of Election Day in-person voting is also being undermined by massive but potentially disparate shortages in poll workers available to staff polling places, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported:
Nearly 60% of Wisconsin municipalities are short on poll workers, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
They are short almost 7,000 poll workers, and election officials are worried even more won’t show up on April 7 because of the coronavirus pandemic that is keeping people in their homes …
In Milwaukee, the shortage is pushing election officials to reduce the number of polling places from 180 to 10 or 12 — a scenario Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett characterized as “irresponsible.”
Milwaukee, of course, is crucial to Democratic prospects in Wisconsin. In an effort to maximize voting, local officials are offering drive-up, in-person early voting.
A record 1.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots, but there are reports they are being sent out very late, and that the election system personnel shortages will make it very difficult for them to be counted in a timely manner.
Conley’s ruling extended the deadline for receiving absentee ballots until April 13, with no requirement that they be postmarked by any particular date. He subsequently ordered county election clerks not to report any results before April 13, which is leading Republicans to claim that he has illegally moved the primary date by sleight of hand (they are also appealing his ruling on grounds that he is relaxing rules for ballot security such as signature witnessing requirements — a bit hazardous in a pandemic). Conley himself reserved the right to take additional actions if events on April 7 indicate widespread violations of voting rights. And no one seems to know how to report results in a primary where votes may well be cast after polls close on Tuesday.
It’s a mess that has entirely overshadowed the presidential primary, and its particularly high stakes for the extremely slim prospects of Bernie Sanders. It’s also not a good sign for a state where Democrats are still scheduled to gather for their national convention (in August rather than July as originally scheduled), and which many observers think could be the decisive jurisdiction in November.
Here’s where things stand at this moment:
Lord have mercy.
This item has been updated.