MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Monday moved to postpone the state’s presidential primary for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting a court challenge and adding to confusion about whether voters will be able to head to the polls on Tuesday.
The executive order from Evers, a Democrat, would delay in-person voting until June 9. But Republicans almost immediately said they would ask the state Supreme Court to intervene, calling Evers’ decision “an unconstitutional overreach.”
The governor himself has questioned whether he has the power to reschedule the election, and the maneuvering left the fate of the election up in the air less than 24 hours before polls were slated to open. Other states that were slated to vote this month have postponed their elections until May or June, but Republicans in Wisconsin have refused to delay.
At the presidential level, Joe Biden already has a commanding delegate lead over Bernie Sanders, and the Wisconsin results aren’t likely to dampen his march to the Democratic nomination. But the tumult in one of the most critical general election battlegrounds underscored the challenge of voting during a pandemic when public health officials are discouraging groups from gathering for virtually any reason to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Frankly, there’s no good answer to this problem — I wish it were easy,” Evers said in a statement. “I have been asking everyone to do their part to help keep our families, our neighbors, and our communities safe, and I had hoped that the Legislature would do its part — just as the rest of us are — to help keep people healthy and safe.”
Republicans are expected to take their case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservative justices. One of them is on the ballot Tuesday and has not participated in other election-related legal fights, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-2.
A separate legal fight over absentee ballots was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
While several states had scheduled primaries in recent weeks, Wisconsin had been alone in moving ahead with in-person voting in the midst of the pandemic. 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.
But Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said 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.
“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.”
Evers is among the governors who have 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,” Erpenbach said. “What do you think people are going to do?”
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.
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.
Even if the election proceeds on Tuesday, thousands of poll workers had said they wouldn’t work, 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.
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?”
Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report from Madison, Wis.