Wisconsin barrels ahead with election despite virus fears
Madison, Wis. – State leaders in Wisconsin are pushing ahead with next week’s presidential primary despite a blizzard of lawsuits, hundreds of poll workers walking off the job and concerns that sending voters out during the coronavirus pandemic would jeopardize public health.
All other state primaries scheduled for April have been delayed to some extent. Wisconsin election officials expressed skepticism about whether theirs could run smoothly under the circumstances. A judge extended absentee voting to April 13, but declined to postpone the election.
“We’re proceeding with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes we’re going to be able to cobble together a way (to administer) this election,” said Ann Jacobs, who sits on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which oversees elections in the state. “We are putting people in dangerous situations that are unnecessary.”
The primary comes as Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders but hasn’t formally clinched the Democratic nomination.
With social distancing mandates taking hold, more than 100 Wisconsin municipalities have said they lack enough poll workers to staff voting sites. Gov. Tony Evers, who has the state under a stay-at-home order, has called on the National Guard to help fill that gap. And the state faces another problem: so many people have requested mail-in ballots that it’s likely to take days to count them all.
Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii and Louisiana were set to hold elections Saturday, but they’ve pushed those contests back. Louisiana’s presidential primary is now set for June 20. Democrats in Alaska and Wyoming have decided to hold their party-run contests by mail only and have pushed back the deadline for turning in ballots.
No one knows if May or June will be any better for elections, but officials say postponing even for a few weeks gives them a chance to plan for public safety, including expanding the use of absentee ballots, recruiting more poll workers and acquiring cleaning supplies for polling sites.
Evers, a Democrat, and Republican legislative leaders initially called for sticking to the scheduled date. Besides the presidential primary, the election will decide hundreds of local races; Evers said a delay could leave those offices vacant for weeks during the crisis.
Since then, what to do about the election has devolved into a partisan battle. Evers mulled shifting the state to an all-mail election but said he couldn’t do it on his own. He asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to change statutes to allow local clerks to mail all registered voters an absentee ballot, a request the state GOP blasted as a “fantasy” that couldn’t be done in time. Evers resurrected the idea Friday, calling a special session for Saturday to urge legislators to give voters until May 26 to submit ballots.
While local clerks are bracing for a deluge of absentee ballots – more than 1 million have been issued, crushing previous records – poll workers are reluctant to put their health at risk.
Emily Bell, a 39-year-old Milwaukee attorney, was looking forward to her first stint as a poll worker. She still plans to do it, but she’s fearful of interacting with voters; a Facebook photo shows her with a bandanna wrapped around her face and holding up an absentee ballot. She said she has found an N95 mask from a friend in the medical field and plans to shed her clothes and jump in the shower as soon as her shift Tuesday ends.
“I woke up panicking one morning,” she said. “I called my sister crying and said, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ (But) it’s really important work and somebody has to do it.”
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Conley rejected a request by Democrats and several liberal groups to postpone the election, criticizing state leaders for proceeding but calling it inappropriate for a federal court “to act as the state’s chief health official.” Conley did extend absentee voting to April 13, and on Friday he ordered clerks to withhold any results until that new deadline.
“There’s no good excuse to have this election,” said Dan Toland, mayor of River Falls, a city of 15,500 on the Minnesota border about 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the Twin Cities. He said his city has closed two of its five polling sites after half of the city’s poll workers quit. “All we hear from the governor is we’ve got to flatten the curve and then they hold an open election. Every city in Wisconsin is under so much stress it isn’t funny.”
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.