MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin moved forward Monday with plans to hold in-person voting for its presidential primary on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic with help from National Guard members staffing the polls, even as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to intervene.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who had originally pushed for the election to proceed as planned, on Friday changed course and asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to extend absentee voting until May 19 and have it all be done by mail. Republicans ignored the request.
The Wisconsin election is being viewed as a national test case in a broader fight over voter access in the age of coronavirus with major implications for the presidential primary contests ahead — and possibly, the November general election.
While several states had scheduled primaries in recent weeks, Wisconsin is alone in moving ahead with in-person voting in the midst of the pandemic. The move is even more extraordinary given that the state’s Democratic governor has issued a stay-at-home order and closed all nonessential businesses. Dozens of polling places have been closed.
Evers and Republicans initially agreed that it was imperative for the election to proceed because hundreds 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 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. The court was considering whether to take action.
Meanwhile, mayors across the state, including Democrats in Wisconsin’s two largest cities of Milwaukee and Madison, have urged Evers not to hold the election out of public safety concerns. Evers has said he doesn’t have the legal authority to do that and has instead called on the Legislature to make it a mail-in election as was done in Ohio.
Thousands of poll workers have said they won’t work on Tuesday, 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.
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.