MADISON – In a historic move less than 24 hours before polls were set to open, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers shut down Tuesday's election to avoid causing more illness and deaths in Wisconsin as the number of coronavirus infections surges.
Evers on Monday issued an executive order that bars in-person voting Tuesday and moves the state's spring election to June 9. It also calls lawmakers back into session this week to decide whether the election should be held at a different date.
But the move is expected to immediately be challenged by Republican lawmakers who want to keep polls open and adjourned the Legislature on Monday without taking up measures to delay the election that Evers called for on Friday.
“It could end up in the Supreme Court yet today but the bottom line is the people of Wisconsin, they don’t care about the fighting between Democrats and Republicans — they're scared,” Evers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I'm standing up for them. I'm standing up for those people who are afraid and that's why I'm doing this.”
The governor's decision came a day after U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned this week will be the nation's worst as it battles the virus outbreak, which has already infected more than 300,000 people and killed more than 10,000 in the U.S.
“This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives, quite frankly,” Adams told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized. It’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that.”
Evers' order is likely the last move he can make to try to stop in-person voting Tuesday. In issuign the order, Evers is arguing he has the power to suspend voting even without legislative action, a position he has not previously held.
On Friday, Evers said he couldn't make changes without lawmakers — saying “my hands are tied.”
He said Monday he now believes he can make the call under his
On the ballot is the presidential primary, a referendum on a crime victims rights and races for state Supreme Court and local offices across the state, including Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.
He called in lawmakers for a special legislative session Saturday to stop in-person voting and delay the election until May, but Republicans who control the Legislature adjourned without taking up any measures.
The governor and Republican lawmakers have agreed until last week to keep the election in place to ensure local government offices with terms expiring in April are filled.
But on Friday, Evers switched course as more illnesses and deaths mounted, his spokeswoman said.
GOP lawmakers blasted the governor for the reversal and said the election must take place to preserve government function.
Part of Evers' order is asking lawmakers to extend expiring terms of office until after the election.
Speaking just before Evers made his announcement, the head of the state Elections Commission told reporters that clerks are well aware the rules of the spring election could be upended with little notice.
“Change is normal for us,” said Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the commission. “We’re pretty well practiced at making changes at the last minute.”
Evers’ latest move is all but certain to be swiftly challenged in court by Republicans, who have said it’s essential to keep the election on schedule despite the pandemic.
They could file a challenge in any circuit court or take it directly to the state Supreme Court, which conservatives control 5-2.
Separately, Democrats and groups aligned with them could try to get the issue before a federal judge to try to keep Evers’ order in place. They have a better shot in federal court than state court because U.S. District Judge William Conley has already said he believes it is a terrible idea to send people to the polls on Tuesday.
Conley last week declined to delay in-person voting, saying doing so was beyond his authority. That power belongs to Evers and lawmakers, he ruled, and he signaled they should prevent in-person voting because of the pandemic.
While Conley didn’t delay the election, he gave people until April 13 to return absentee ballots, provided they had requested them before the election. That part of his decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the matter gets to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the case may be handled by a smaller number of justices than usual.
Conservative Justice Daniel Kelly is on the ballot and he has declined to participate in two recent election cases to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. If he were to step aside in this case, the conservative majority would shrink from 5-2 to 4-2.
Having a six-member court raises the possibility of a deadlock, as happened in December in a case regarding whether people who are believed to have moved should be taken off the polls.
In a briefing for the media, the state Election Commission’s Wolfe described an election day that would have been unlike any Wisconsin voters have seen before. She spoke just before Evers called off in-person voting.
At many locations, poll workers would be wearing masks. At others, they would be behind Plexiglass screens. Voters would be told to stay six feet away from others and use sanitizer before and after they voted.
Some communities were planning curbside voting, where voters would hold their IDs up to the window and poll workers would slide a ballot to them through a crack in the window.
But for now, those plans are sidelined because of Evers’ order.
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