Wisconsin Primary to Proceed Tuesday After Court Blocks Delay

April 7, 2020 by Dan McCue

Wisconsin’s presidential preference and other primaries will proceed as scheduled Tuesday after the state Supreme Court blocked Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute attempt to delay in-person voting by executive order.

The state’s highest court, voting 4-2, agreed with Republican legislators who had argued the governor lacked the authority to change the date of the election, meaning that in-person voting will go on despite his stay-at-home order amid concerns about the coronavirus.

The ruling came hours after Evers issued an executive order suspending the in-person voting Tuesday and asking the legislature to postpone it until June 9 or a date of their choosing. 

The Republican leadership of the legislature balked, and instead challenged the order in the court while telling county clerks to be ready for a primary on Tuesday.

Fifteen states and Puerto Rico have either delayed primaries or switched to vote-by-mail as Americans obey stay-at-home orders as the coronavirus pandemic continues but none has had as dramatic a fight over it as Wisconsin.

Evers had initially opposed any delay in the vote, but he said Monday that concerns over public health caused him to change his mind. 

Wisconsin has more than 2,000 coronavirus cases and has had 73 deaths from the disease. Evers issued a stay-at-home order for the state in late March.

“As municipalities are consolidating polling locations, and absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing,” Evers said in a written statement.

“The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order,” he said.

In the wake of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, Evers’ attempts to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the primary election took another blow when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday night that the state could not extend the deadline for absentee voting in Tuesday’s elections.

In a 5-4 vote, the majority said such a change “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.” 

The court’s four liberal members dissented, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing that “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.”

The dispute before the U.S. Supreme Court began last month, when the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters asked a federal judge to postpone the state’s April 7 primary because of the COVID-19 crisis.

U.S. District Judge William Conley rejected the request to postpone the election, saying it would be inappropriate for a federal judge to assume the authority of the state health commissioner.

He did, however, extend the deadline for the state to receive absentee ballots, hoping state lawmakers would decide on their own to move the primary.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to freeze Conley’s order, setting up this weekend’s appeal to the Supreme Court by Wisconsin Republicans.

In the meantime, Evers called for a special legislative session to begin last Saturday to consider shifting to an all-mail voting system for the primary with a deadline of May 26.

The legislature responded by opening the session, then voting to end it moments later.

At the heart of the dispute is a race for a state Supreme Court seat. The race is said to be close, and several published reports in the state suggest Republicans fear any change in how the vote is done will disadvantage their candidate and loosen their hold on the state’s judiciary.

Wisconsin, with 84 delegates, now joins a list of more than a dozen states and U.S. territories that have adjusted their nominating contests due to the coronavirus.

The global pandemic has also wreaked havoc on the Democratic primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Both candidates have suspended in-person campaigning and have had to rely on virtual town halls and other digital outreach to keep their campaigns in the public’s minds.

Biden is now within striking distance of securing the Democratic party’s nomination, having trounced Sanders in the last primary contests, which were held on March 17.

The coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to dozens of countries globally, with more than 1.3 million confirmed cases worldwide and over 73,703 deaths so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The university also reports there have been at least 352,546 cases in the United States and at least 10,389 deaths, according to the latest tallies. At least 18,999 people are also known to have recovered.

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