Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers has declined to invoke emergency powers and reschedule the state’s April 7 primary, even though a majority of Wisconsin residents support changing the date.
A number of federal lawsuits have been filed in Wisconsin, including by groups committed to get-out-the-vote efforts. The lawsuits request an expansion of mail-in voting and/or postponement of in-person voting.
Thirteen states, including New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, have rescheduled their primaries.
While Alaska and Wyoming are still holding their primaries in April, the states canceled in-person voting and everyone who wants to participate will vote by mail.
The irrational commitment by Evers, the Republican-controlled state legislature, and the Elections Commission to holding a primary in the middle of an intensifying pandemic flouts statewide and nationwide orders issued to protect the public’s health. It forces communities to give up their right to vote if they want to make certain they do not contract the virus.
COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin surpassed 1,200 on March 30. Twenty-three people have died, and Evers has said the severity of this disease in the African American community in Milwaukee is a crisis within a crisis.”
On March 26, Souls To The Polls, Voces De La Frontera, Black Leaders Organizing For Communities, the American Federation Of Teachers, Local 212, SEIU Wisconsin State Council, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission and asked a federal court to order the state to move the primary to after April 24, when Evers’ emergency order [PDF] expires. They also asked the court to extend mail-in voting to June 2.
Ultimately, it is the Wisconsin Elections Commission, as well as Evers, that have the authority to make changes to the primary that would limit or prevent voter disenfranchisement.
The groups contend holding the primary on April 7 will unconstitutionally infringe upon the rights voters. It will violate the Voting Rights Act.
“Assuming that public health experts confirm that the pandemic has flattened out and subsided such that in-person voting can be conducted in a safe manner,” the groups believe there is no defensible reason not to wait for that to happen and reschedule in-person voting.
The five counties with the most populous metropolitan areas in Wisconsin—Milwaukee County, Dane County (Madison), Brown County (Green Bay), Outagamie County (Appleton), and Racine County (Racine)—have reported “community spread of COVID-19.”
At least 400 trained election staff notified the city of Milwaukee they will not work the election. In Madison, over 650 poll workers canceled their assigned shifts.
Only 54 out of 278 poll workers in Green Bay have agreed to work polling places on April 7, and the state has not provided cleaning supplies.
Staff shortages are due to the fact that counties overwhelmingly rely on elderly citizens to administer elections.
“It is irresponsible to conduct an in-person election knowing not only that older Americans are at higher risk of mortality from COVID-19 during times of community spread, but that they also are the backbone of the election process,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit adds, “There is no way to protect poll workers if basic sanitizing wipes are unavailable for the 13-hour election day, particularly since the voting process requires people to make direct contact and operate in close proximity to each other.”
Thus far, there “appears to be no hand sanitizer or sanitation wipes available through local, state, or federal channels” so cities cannot guarantee they will be able to keep polling places safe for voters and poll workers.
Evers and various other officials have warned against postponing the primary because local government positions may be left vacant. The lawsuit asserts, “Many cities and villages have charters that permit incumbents to continue in office pending the selection of their successor, and even in the absence of such a charter provision, incumbents will continue as de facto fully valid office holders pending the completion of the election process.”
State officials have suggested, as officials in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois did, that younger people be hired to work polling places. But this rests on a widespread misperception that younger people are not as vulnerable to contracting the virus.
The Wisconsin Health Department advised, “Younger people, and particularly those who are 18 to 30 years old, aren’t immune to COVID-19. Anyone can contract COVID-19. So it’s important for everyone, including young and healthy people, to practice social distancing.”
Groups estimate the city of Milwaukee could see a 44 percent reduction in turnout that disproportionately impacts African American and Hispanic residents.
According to the lawsuit, “The COVID-19 virus has struck hard in the African American community and extending the deadline to vote in the spring general election will enable thousands of voters to participate in the election who otherwise will be disenfranchised.”
Voces claims most of the voters they represent are “new or infrequent voters, who require significant attention and assistance.” However, if the primary is held on April 7, they will not vote in-person “due to fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus.”
SEIU Wisconsin has engaged in canvassing work and found there are a “significant number of people, especially those in older age brackets, who strongly prefer to vote in person, who do not want to vote a different way, and who do not feel comfortable with or capable of navigating the absentee ballot process. In some cases, these are people who do not have a smartphone or computer and who, as a result, do not have access to or the ability to request and submit ballots online.”
Although Wisconsin has encouraged residents to fill out absentee ballots, the state requires absentee ballot certifications to be signed by the voter and a witness, who must be an adult United States citizen.
“This requirement constitutes an insurmountable hurdle for many eligible Wisconsin voters under quarantine or in isolation,” the lawsuit maintains. “All eligible Wisconsin voters under self-quarantine who live alone or who do not have an adult U.S. citizen in their household will be unable to satisfy the state’s witness signature requirement and cast a mail-in absentee ballot.”
The Wisconsin State Senate ceased in-person meetings. Lawmakers are meeting via teleconference, and the Wisconsin State Capitol building is closed to the public.
All jury trials and in-person proceedings at the Wisconsin Supreme Court were postponed.
“Despite the other branches of government suspending activities that would allow the public to physically access the State Capitol, the Senate chambers, and the courts, the Elections Commission continues to insist that municipal clerks provide in-person voter registration, and that the polls be open for in-person voting on April 7.”
Because numerous jurisdictions are overwhelmed by absentee ballot requests, “Wisconsin voters are at a high risk of not receiving their ballots with sufficient time to mail it into the municipal clerk’s office so that it is received prior to the Election Day receipt deadline. This too will lead to disenfranchisement.”
Republicans demanded the state’s supreme court block officials from waiving the photo identification requirement for voters, who submit absentee ballots. That will ensure more voters are denied their right to vote.
Plainly, as Wisconsin state officials push on with the pandemic primary, they ignore and resist calls to implement changes to the process that would protect the public from the spread of the coronavirus while also ensuring voting rights are protected.
In-person voting will force Wisconsin voters, especially vulnerable communities, to choose to exercise their right to vote by taking actions that may greatly impact their health and the health of their families, friends, and neighbors, or they may stay home and skip voting entirely.