“If, as elected officials, we’re going to expect the people of our state to make sacrifices to keep all of us safe, then, by golly, we better be willing to do our part, too,” Evers said in a video broadcast on Facebook. “So, today I announced that I am calling the legislature into a special session to do its part — just as all of us are — to help keep our neighbors, our families, and our communities safe.”
Evers’s reversal surprised leaders across Wisconsin, coming just four days before in-person voting was set to begin and amid a sprint by state and local election officials to stock up on sanitizing supplies and consolidate voting locations due to a shortage of poll workers.
Just Wednesday, the governor had ordered the Wisconsin National Guard to prepare to assist with voting locations as thousands of poll workers called in to cancel plans to work.
There is no guarantee the GOP-controlled legislature will follow Evers’s recommendation. Earlier this month, Evers asked it to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter, extend the deadline for returning ballots and waive photo ID and witness requirements, but lawmakers declined.
Additionally, Republicans are appealing a federal judge’s decision from Thursday extending the deadline to return ballots.
Earlier in the week, state House Speaker Robin Vos said he planned to volunteer at the polls Tuesday, and he urged other Wisconsinites to do the same.
“I feel safe being there because of the safeguards being put in place by local governments and the Wisconsin Elections Commission,” Vos said. “If you’re bored at home and sick of watching Netflix, volunteer to go and help at the polls.”
Also unclear is what changed Evers’s mind, but local election officials said the increasing evidence that the pandemic is still growing in Wisconsin was wreaking havoc on their ability to prepare for Tuesday. Poll workers were canceling by the thousands, and in Milwaukee, for instance, election officials announced they had enough workers to run five voting locations instead of the usual 180.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Scott McDonell, the clerk in Dane County, home of the capital, Madison. “It should have been done two weeks ago.”
Also Friday, a federal judge ordered that, if the election does proceed Tuesday, Wisconsin clerks cannot release any results from its presidential primaries on Tuesday until April 13, a deadline for submitting absentee ballots that was extended because of concerns about in-person voting amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The order by U.S. District Judge William M. Conley is the latest fallout from the controversy over Wisconsin’s decision to proceed with its elections despite widespread concerns that the pandemic could risk public health and curtail access to the polls.
In effect, it will mean a blackout of traditional reporting of election returns on Tuesday night after the polls have closed in contests including the still-ongoing race for the Democratic presidential nomination between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Under Conley’s order, results are not allowed to be released until 4 p.m. local time in Wisconsin on April 13, nearly a week after the close of the polls Tuesday.
On Thursday, Conley declined to postpone Wisconsin’s primaries, meaning it will remain the only one of 11 states originally scheduled to hold contests in April that has not postponed or dramatically altered voting amid the pandemic.
However, in a 53-page ruling, Conley extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be requested by voters and said they must be received by election officials by April 13 to count.
Conley made clear that he disagreed with the state’s decision to go forward with the election, but he explained that he was constrained to consider only the constitutional rights of voters — not public health.
“Without doubt, the April 7 election day will create unprecedented burdens not just for aspiring voters, but also for poll workers, clerks, and indeed the state,” Conley wrote. “As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards. Nor is it appropriate for a federal-district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them.”
Sanders this week urged state officials to postpone the contest, but Biden told reporters Thursday that the question is “for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide,” adding that he thinks it’s possible to hold an election during the pandemic with more mail-in balloting.
Voting rights activists and local election administrators in Wisconsin painted a dire portrait of the risk of infection to poll workers and voters, saying how difficult it would be to administer elections under those circumstances.
More than 100 municipalities reported not having enough poll workers to open a single voting location. State officials predicted that tens of thousands of voters who have flooded election offices with mail-ballot requests in recent days were at risk of not receiving them on time.
Leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature have argued that moving the voting date so late in the process would sow confusion and create a leadership vacuum in cities and towns holding contests for municipal posts that will be vacant as early as mid-April.
Voting rights groups turned to the federal courts for intervention, supported by national Democrats and some county clerks in the state. National Republicans are helping defend the decision to go forward with voting next week.
The power to delay an election in Wisconsin lies with the legislature, but Scott L. Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, and Vos, noted that Evers did not push to postpone Tuesday’s vote, either.
“If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday night. “I’ve asked the legislature to do its part to ensure a fair and safe election and I hope we can get some clarity as soon as possible.”