Updated: 6:31 p.m.
Wisconsin Republicans brushed off Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call Friday to meet in special session to delay Tuesday’s presidential primary and shift to mail-only as the coronavirus sweeps across the state, saying the election should continue as planned.
Evers wanted the session to begin Saturday afternoon and for lawmakers to take up bills that would allow clerks to mail absentee ballots to voters who haven’t requested one by May 19 and give voters until May 26 to return them.
Republican legislative leaders technically must convene but aren’t required to take any action. The GOP already rejected a request from Evers last week to shift the election to mail-only ballots, calling it a “fantasy” so close to the election.
Evers said at the beginning of the outbreak that the election should go on as scheduled even amid a stay-at-home order and Republican legislators agreed. On Friday, they accused him of waffling under pressure from liberal groups.
“It's so disappointing that Governor Evers has flip-flopped on the very question that we have been discussing over the last month,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement. “The only bipartisan discussion we've had was to ensure the election would continue safely and to maximize the opportunity to vote absentee."
Other states have delayed their primaries to protect voters and poll workers from the virus. 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.
In Wisconsin, criticism of Evers has been mounting as more and more poll workers walk off the job; more than 100 municipalities have reported they lack enough staff to run even one polling place. Democrats and liberal groups filed three federal lawsuits demanding a judge postpone in-person voting; the judge declined but earlier this week extended the absentee deadline to April 13.
The governor has said he lacks the power to change election law unilaterally. Calling a special session was Evers' last option to try and force legislative action.
The governor said during a conference call with reporters that holding the election as planned on Tuesday “is a significant concern and a very unnecessary health risk. I can’t move this election on my own. My hands are tied.”
The primary comes as Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders but hasn’t formally clinched the Democratic nomination. Tuesday's election also features hundreds of races for local office as well as a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat.
It also comes as Wisconsin's chief medical officer says the state is “flattening the curve” on new COVID-19 infections. Dr. Ryan Westergaard said this week Evers' stay-at-home order “is making a big difference.”
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.
“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.”
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.”