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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called Wednesday for officials in Wisconsin to postpone the state’s April 7 presidential primary because of the threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
“People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote, which is why 15 states are now following the advice of public health experts and delaying their elections,” said the Democratic presidential contender. “We urge Wisconsin to join them. The state should delay Tuesday’s vote, extend early voting and work to move entirely to vote-by-mail.”
Sanders was not alone in recognizing that a delay is necessary.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler announced Wednesday that the party was endorsing “the call by civil rights groups and mayors across Wisconsin to postpone our April 7 election and remove barriers to safe voting by mail.”
At the same time, a federal judge who was considering lawsuits seeking to delay the election complained, “The state of Wisconsin’s Legislature and governor are not willing to step up and say there’s a public health crisis and make it absolutely clear that we should not be allowing poll workers and voters to congregate on April 7.”
Pointing out that “the state of Wisconsin is ignoring [public health] data and endangering its public,” US District Judge William Conley urged state officials to delay the election. “It’s really a bad public policy idea and they should stop it for health reasons,” said the judge.
But Judge Conley refused to order a postponement, arguing that the decision is up to the state.
Democratic Governor Tony Evers responded, “If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law. I’ve asked the legislature to do its part to ensure a fair and safe election and I hope we can get some clarity as soon as possible.” But clarity was hard to come by, as Republicans who control the state legislature refused to accept arguments for delaying the election.
So the election is, as of publication, going forward—despite the fact that, by a 51-44 margin, the voters say it should be postponed.
Sanders is urging Wisconsin backers to vote by mail. Former vice president Joe Biden, who leads Sanders in polls of likely Wisconsin Democratic primary voters, has so far refused to join the senator in calling for a delay. The Biden camp is simply telling voters to “follow social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Prominent Republicans are also urging voters to show up on April 7.
The problem with the message from Biden and the Republicans is that the election is now degenerating into chaos. Poll workers in communities across Wisconsin—where Evers has ordered a statewide “stay-at-home” lockdown—are signaling that they do not feel they will be safe running polling places on Tuesday. That’s led to a dramatic reduction in the number of locations where in-person voting can take place.
In Waukesha, a city of 72,000, only one polling place will open Tuesday. In the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, where only 400 of the needed 1,400 poll workers have signed up, officials plan to reduce the number of polling places from 180 to only 10 or 12.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was asked if he felt comfortable urging voters to cast in-person ballots Tuesday in the presidential primary as well as state and local elections—including his own race for another term as mayor. His response: “No, not one bit.”
“It doesn’t make sense for us to put people in harm’s way by asking them to go and stand in line,” said Barrett.
Barrett’s been urging voters to cast absentee ballots, as has Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison. But both cities have been overwhelmed by the demand for alternatives to in-person voting. In Madison, for instance, election officials have been scrambling to find enough ballot envelopes and mailing labels to keep up with a deluge of requests for absentee ballots. Instead of the expected 6,000 to 7,000, the City has had more than 70,000, and the numbers are rising. Statewide, requests for absentee ballots were by Wednesday running more than 200,000 ahead of the total for the 2016 November election, when 819,316 were cast. The phone lines of election clerks were jammed with calls from more people seeking ballots.
“‘Nightmare,’” screamed the Green Bay Post Gazette headline, which warned: “Clerks working overtime, but some Wisconsin voters may not get ballots in time.”
With backlogs of absentee ballot requests, deadlines for applications looming, and complexities arising because of the state’s draconian voter ID laws, hundreds of thousands of voters are watching their options disappear. In Green Bay, where more than 230 election workers said they would obey orders to stay at home rather than risk contracting the virus, the City has floated the idea of reducing the number of polling places from 31 to as few as four.
There’s talk of using members of the National Guard as poll workers, and of conducting the vote in large gymnasiums where social distancing might be easier. But Green Bay City Attorney Vanessa Chavez told the Press Gazette, “Even to the extent a gymnasium space would allow for social distancing, there are multiple opportunities for close contact during the voting process, such as when signing the poll books, and depending upon the number of people in line and any number of other factors, social distancing may become difficult.”
Lawyers for Green Bay and other cities have joined voting rights groups in seeking to delay the election. But the courts have so far refused to intervene. And Republicans, who hope to win a hotly contested state Supreme Court race on a low turnout, were still dismissing concerns with remarks that make Donald Trump sound like a public-health stalwart. “If you’re bored at home and sick of watching Netflix, volunteer to go and help at the polls,” chirped state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
Evers has taken the challenge more seriously than Vos. But the governor has wrestled with concerns about the fact that hundreds of nonpartisan races for township, village, city, and county posts, as well as school boards and the judiciary, are on the ballot Tuesday.
Evers said last week that he wanted absentee ballots to be sent to all voters. But state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican who is campaigning for an open US House seat as a Trump administration ally, dismissed the ideas as a “complete fantasy.”
Evers was right. Fitzgerald was wrong.
But the standoff between the Democratic governor and the Republican legislature has delayed meaningful action to hold an election where everyone is guaranteed a safe and reasonably easy chance to vote.
At this point, the election should be delayed. But it does not necessarily have to be delayed for as long as it has been in the 15 states that have already postponed primary elections—many of which have rescheduled voting for June 2. Because Wisconsin must avoid vacancies in local posts, it needs to move more quickly. That’s possible, because a great many absentee ballots have already been cast.
The state could, by extending voting for two weeks, by adopting the proposal by Evers to send an absentee ballot to every voter, and by easing ID restrictions for voters who want to register online, end the chaos and conduct a legitimate vote.
That’s not an ideal circumstance. But it would dramatically increase turnout, which ought to be the goal.