Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Monday suspending in-person voting in Tuesday’s elections, citing the intensifying health threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
The abrupt move came after the GOP-controlled state legislature refused to postpone the vote during a special session Evers (D) called on Saturday.
Evers’s order Monday postpones in-person voting and the receipt deadline for mail-in ballots to June 9.
The governor said the fresh urgency to postpone voting resulted in part from dire warnings by the White House over the weekend, when several Trump administration officials predicted that the coronavirus pandemic will worsen dramatically during the coming week.
“At the end of the day, this is about the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said in an interview Monday. “They frankly don’t care much about Republicans and Democrats fighting. They’re scared. We have the surgeon general saying this is Pearl Harbor. It’s time to act.”
Whether Evers has the authority to unilaterally postpone the election has been the subject of heated debate in Wisconsin, and the governor acknowledged that a Republican court challenge is “likely.”
“I just absolutely believe the people of Wisconsin are ready for this and will embrace it, and I’m counting on the judicial system to feel the same,” Evers said. “Regardless of the legal issues, I absolutely have the belief that the governor has to step up and stand up for those people. No one else is.”
Leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature have said that moving the voting date so late in the process would sow confusion and create a leadership vacuum in cities and towns holding contests for municipal posts that will be vacant as early as mid-April.
Democrats and voting activists have accused Republicans of trying to suppress voter turnout intentionally to help an incumbent candidate for the state Supreme Court, conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, keep his seat.
In late 2018, Republican lawmakers considered changing the date of the Democratic presidential primary, which was expected to draw high turnout, to protect Kelly’s candidacy. At the time, the Senate’s Republican leader, Scott L. Fitzgerald, said moving the Democratic contest to March would give the justice a “better chance” of winning.
Evers’s order Monday both postpone Tuesday’s voting and extends the terms of thousands of municipal officials whose terms expire in April and are on the spring ballot.
In his order, Evers said he was calling yet another special session on Tuesday, when he hopes lawmakers will pass legislation conforming state law with the new ballot deadline.
Despite mounting concerns among voters and poll workers about the risk of Tuesday’s in-person voting, Evers waited until Friday to first call for the presidential primaries and local elections to be postponed.
He said he did not act earlier because he believed in-person voting could be safe because so many Wisconsinites voted by mail, and because those planning to vote on Election Day would be widely dispersed among thousands of polling places across the state.
That is no longer true, with mass cancellations among poll workers forcing local election administrators to shutter hundreds of voting sites, the governor said. Milwaukee, for instance, announced late last week that it planned to open only five voting sites compared with the usual 180.
“It’s always been about following the science,” the governor said. “We have seen growth in the number of deaths across the state. We’ve seen coronavirus showing up via tests across the state. It’s been accelerating.”
Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause of Wisconsin, said he is “terrified” by the idea of the state holding the election on Tuesday given the mounting health risks.
For the first time in nearly 25 years in his role, he is not encouraging people to vote in person, which “flies in the face of everything I believe in.”“It’s insanity. It’s just insanity,” an emotional Heck said midday Monday, before the governor’s order, describing the ways people could contract coronavirus at a polling place. “It makes me cry thinking about what is going to happen tomorrow. It really does.”
On Sunday, two Democratic appointees on the Wisconsin Elections Commission denounced the legislature for moving forward with in-person voting, warning that the move would put the lives of Wisconsin voters at risk.
“Your failure to address these profound issues and the safety of all of Wisconsin’s residents during yesterday’s special session is unconscionable and is an abdication of your constitutional responsibilities as our leaders,” said Ann S. Jacobs and Mark L. Thomsen in a letter to Fitzgerald and House Speaker Robin Vos (R).
In addition, the mayors of 11 Wisconsin cities — including Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay — urged state Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm in a letter to use her emergency powers to postpone voting on Tuesday.
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