MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin moved forward Monday with plans to hold in-person voting for its presidential primary amid the coronavirus pandemic with help from National Guard members staffing the polls, even as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to intervene.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who had originally pushed for Tuesday’s election to proceed as planned, on Friday changed course and asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to extend absentee voting until May 19 and have it all be done by mail. Republicans ignored the request.
The Wisconsin election is being viewed as a national test case in a broader fight over voter access in the age of coronavirus with major implications for the presidential primary contests ahead — and, possibly, the November general election.
While several states had scheduled primaries in recent weeks, Wisconsin is alone in moving ahead with in-person voting in the midst of the pandemic. The move is even more extraordinary given that the state’s Democratic governor has issued a stay-at-home order and closed all nonessential businesses. Dozens of polling places have been closed.
“Your choice is to go and vote in person and take a chance on contracting COVID-19 or stay home,” Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said. “What do you think people are going to do?”
Evers and Republicans initially agreed that 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 putting the conservative incumbent against a liberal challenger.
The election “must happen” because of the terms that are ending, said Republican state Rep. Ron Tusler, who tweeted over the weekend that elections continued during both the War of 1812 and the 1918 flu pandemic.
The state and national Democratic parties, along with a host of other liberal and voter advocacy groups, filed federal lawsuits seeking a delay in the election and other changes. A federal court judge just last week handed Democrats a partial win, allowing for absentee ballots to be counted through April 13, delaying the reporting of election results until then. But the judge, and later a federal appeals court, declined to postpone the election.
Republicans have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that it not allow absentee ballots to be counted beyond Tuesday. They argue that partial results could be leaked. The court was considering whether to take action.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe warned clerks not to defy the federal court order and release any results before April 13. To reduce the chance of that happening, Wolfe told clerks to minimize access to vote totals and not transmit any until after 4 p.m. on April 13.
Republicans want to suppress turnout, particularly in Democrat-heavy Milwaukee, because that will benefit Republicans and the conservative Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who is seeking a 10-year term, Erpenbach said.
“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.”
Meanwhile, mayors across the state, including Democrats in Wisconsin’s two largest cities of Milwaukee and Madison, have urged Evers not to hold the election out of public safety concerns. Evers has said he doesn’t have the legal authority to do that and has instead called on the Legislature to make it a mail-in election, as was done in Ohio.
Thousands of poll workers have said they won’t work on Tuesday, leading Milwaukee to reduce its planned number of polling sites from 180 to just five. The National Guard was distributing supplies, including hand sanitizer, to polling sites across the state. In Madison, city workers were erecting plexiglass barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission said that poll workers would be ready and polling sites would be safe, but voters should be prepared for delays. It’s also possible that, because of consolidation of polling sites, voters will have to go someplace different from normal to cast their ballots.
George Dunst, 76, of Madison, is the former attorney for the state elections commission who has volunteered at his local polling site for nearly every election since he retired. But he’s not going on 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?”
As of Monday morning, a record-high 1.2 million absentee ballots had been requested and more than 724,000 had been returned. Democrats fear that if the Supreme Court reverses the judge’s ruling and cuts short the amount of time those ballots can be returned and still counted, thousands of voters will be disenfranchised and not have their votes counted.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report from Madison, Wis.