Wisconsin Supreme Court overrules governor's attempt to postpone election, despite coronavirus concerns

·Senior Political Correspondent

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Monday evening overruled a decision by the state’s governor to postpone their primary election from this week to June, putting the Tuesday election back on just hours after the the governor had tried to push it back.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Monday morning issued an executive order to postpone state elections scheduled for Tuesday until June 9, a dramatic last-minute move that capped weeks of indecision by state leaders.

But Monday evening, the state’s highest court overruled that decision in a 4-2 vote, with the vote breaking down along partisan lines, with Republican judges in the majority. Wisconsin is one of 22 states in the country where judges are elected by popular vote, rather than appointed.

The lone justice to recuse himself from the vote, Daniel Kelly — because he is standing for reelection on Tuesday — foreshadowed the vote’s outcome Monday afternoon on Twitter, stating that “while the Governor’s order is being challenged in court, we urge clerks, poll workers, and voters to stand ready to conduct the election tomorrow.”

Soon after the Wisconsin court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling of its own, reversing a previous lower court that had granted voters six additional days to turn in absentee ballots. Wisconsin Republicans and the Republican National Committee asked the nation’s highest court to stop that, and the five conservative justices on the court granted that request, despite the fact that more Wisconsin voters requested absentee ballots than ever before thanks to concerns about the coronavirus.

Wisconsin election officials had warned last week that there was a critical shortage of poll workers needed for in-person voting. “Nearly every county in Wisconsin has at least one municipality concerned about their ability to open a polling place,” a top election official warned.

Evers had planned to call out the National Guard to staff the roughly 7,000 poll worker slots left unfilled due to illness or an unwillingness to show up as cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise. As of Monday afternoon, more than 2,400 cases of the disease and 80 deaths from it had been confirmed in Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. (Nick Oxford/Reuters)
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. (Nick Oxford/Reuters)

But another concern was that mail-in voting would be a debacle. Many voters might not have received ballots in time due to the record number of 1.1 million that had been requested by mail. Election clerks were also likely to have been overwhelmed by the flood of ballots coming in by mail.

“There’s an avalanche coming at the clerks,” Elections Commissioner Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee, said during a meeting of the commission held by teleconference last week. “All the clerks have reported they are short of poll workers and staffing.”

But Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, who control both chambers of the Legislature, were intent on moving forward with the election. Republicans on the Elections Commission shared that attitude.

“I’m very happy in terms of what’s going on here, and I think we can have a good election,” said Robert Spindell, a Republican appointee to the commission, during the teleconference.

Last Friday, Evers called on the Legislature to convene a special session to push the election back and to shift the election to an all-mail-in contest. “I can’t move this election on my own. My hands are tied,” he said then.  

Republicans in the Legislature rejected that request on Saturday.

But on Monday, Evers said that “as municipalities are consolidating polling locations, and absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing.”

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

A group called Citizens Outraged Voters in Danger (or C.O.V.I.D.) protests outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on April 4. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
A group called Citizens Outraged Voters in Danger (or C.O.V.I.D.) protests outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on April 4. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Evers told Politico that he consulted with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, about how to follow the path DeWine took on March 17 in postponing the Ohio primary.

Evers said he expects a legal challenge from Republicans, and that injects additional uncertainty into what will happen on Tuesday.

Election experts have warned that this kind of chaos is a small preview of what fall elections nationwide will look like if the government does not begin preparing now for how to conduct a general election in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

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