The surprise announcement threw election preparations into further chaos amid a sprint by state and local officials to stock up on sanitizing supplies and consolidate voting locations because of a mass shortage of poll workers. Republican leaders quickly rejected Evers’s call, leaving the primary in a shaky state.
The move turned the nation’s attention to what may be a test case of how — and how not — to manage democracy during a global pandemic. As the coronavirus has torn apart the fabric of daily life, it has also upended the political landscape, injected even more uncertainty into an already tumultuous campaign and forced election administrators across the country to rethink how to allow voting to proceed fairly and safely.
At the time of Evers’s announcement, Wisconsin was the only one of 11 states originally scheduled to hold contests in April that had not postponed or dramatically altered voting amid the pandemic. But the states that chose to delay may have only put off the day of reckoning when they, too, must decide how to balance democracy and public health.
“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’d better be willing do our part, too,” Evers said in a video posted 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.”
Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature, not Evers, holds the power to reschedule the election, and GOP leaders have steadfastly opposed doing so. But Evers, a Democrat, has been criticized by some in his own party for not forcing the issue more aggressively.
“Some eye-rolling going on here,” Scott McDonell, the clerk of Dane County, home of the state capital, Madison, said after Evers’s announcement. “Two weeks late.”
Yet it was unclear if Evers would succeed, since he is certain to face steep opposition from Republicans during Saturday’s special session of the legislature.
“In elections during uncertain times, it’s important that no one questions the process,” GOP legislative leaders Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement. “That’s why it’s so disappointing that Governor Evers has flip-flopped on the very question that we have been discussing over the past month.”
On Thursday, a federal judge declined to postpone the election, saying it was impossible to prove before Election Day that the pandemic infringes on voting rights, although he extended the deadline for absentee ballots. Evers now wants to push that deadline even further, to May 26.
Republicans have argued that canceling the election on such short notice would sow chaos, while Democrats have accused them of wanting to capitalize on low turnout to score a win in a hotly contested state Supreme Court race.
And then there are the presidential campaigns — wary of urging supporters to risk their health by gathering at polling places, but eager to have their support if they do. The result is that former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are in essence conducting a ghost campaign in Wisconsin, devoid of the traditional elements of a presidential contest like rallies and town halls, and all but disappearing from Facebook feeds and television screens.
“It’s all just very eerie,” said Randy Bryce, a state co-chairman of the Sanders campaign, who was a congressional candidate in 2018. “There’s that bonding in crowds, that excitement. And that’s just not there. It doesn’t have the feel of the most important election of my lifetime just around the corner.”
Earlier this week, Sanders urged Wisconsin to postpone the primary, while Biden told reporters that the question was “for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide.”
With no sign that the impact of the coronavirus will subside anytime soon, Wisconsin’s descent into partisan fighting, legal action, health fears and general confusion is offering a preview of what could come in other states.
As of Friday, at least 16 states plus Puerto Rico had postponed their primaries or converted them to mail-only balloting, leaving election officials scrambling to prepare for those altered primaries as well as November’s general election.
In Wisconsin, the prospect of chaos reached a fever pitch in recent days, as public health officials warned that the virus was expected to spread rapidly across the state in the first two weeks of April.
Last week, Evers asked lawmakers to mail ballots to every registered voter in the state, extend the deadline to register and postpone the deadline to return completed ballots. They declined to do any of that and did not even contemplate outright postponement, even as Evers and health officials ordered state residents to shelter in place.
In the meantime, thousands of poll workers began canceling plans to work on Election Day, and by Wednesday, 111 cities and towns had reported to Wisconsin election officials that they lacked sufficient workers to open a single polling location. The state’s largest city, Milwaukee, reported Friday that it would open five polling places instead of the usual 180.
Some localities planned to offer drive-up voting to preserve social distancing rules.
A state plane was used to fly cleaning supplies to remote corners of Wisconsin, including two liters of 170-proof sanitizer made by local distilleries for each polling location.
Still, some pointed to the heavy use of mail-in ballots as evidence that the crush on Election Day could be limited.
As of Friday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reported that it had sent out nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots and had more than 561,000 ballots returned. In 2016, just over 1 million people voted in the Democratic primary.
If the election does proceed Tuesday but does not go well, that could prompt other states to push their contests even later, further prolonging the Democratic quest to settle on a nominee who can focus solely on President Trump. That, in turn, could add to the pressure on Sanders to drop out and allow the party to coalesce around Biden, who has a nearly insurmountable delegate lead.
Wisconsin is a crucial test for Democrats, a state where their hopes in the 2020 general election could live or die, given Trump’s narrow win there in 2016. It is where they hope to hold their convention — if they are able to hold it at all, after postponing it recently from July to August.
And Wisconsin is now the only state for at least a month still holding in-person voting. Its 84 delegates make it the biggest prize until April 28, when mail-in ballot voting will be completed in Ohio.
Another comfortable win by Biden could put Sanders in a difficult spot, as many Democrats are eager to bring the primary contest to an end. A survey from Marquette Law School released Wednesday showed Biden attracting 62 percent of likely voters in Wisconsin, compared with 34 percent for Sanders.
Biden on Thursday suggested that there were discussions between the two campaigns that could result in Sanders withdrawing.
“I have to be very blunt with you: Our staffs have been talking, Bernie’s staff and mine,” the former vice president said during an online fundraiser. “I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I have enormous respect for him. . . . Whether Bernie gets out or stays in remains to be seen.”
The Sanders and Biden campaigns have been forced to rely heavily on digital operations that are inherently impersonal, seeking to motivate people through a screen and hoping that volunteers who want to be part of a movement will be engaged when sitting at home.
The Sanders campaign once had a headquarters in Milwaukee plus four field offices in the state. Now, the 54 campaign staffers from those offices are all working remotely, spread across several time zones across the country.
“As a state director I wasn’t anticipating my main place of operation being in my parents’ basement in Colorado,” said Sean Ward, who has been coordinating the Sanders campaign in Wisconsin. “But that’s where we are.”
Neither Biden nor Sanders has spent a dime on television or radio ads in Wisconsin, even while some $4.2 million in ads have aired on a state Supreme Court race, according to data supplied to The Washington Post by the tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
The campaigns are doing their best to grapple with the new reality. Sanders staffers say they have made nearly 368,000 phone calls and connected with nearly 4,200 voters through their app. The campaign has hosted eight virtual house parties and three student-led organizing events, and has had more than 1,000 volunteers making calls to voters in Wisconsin.
Still, some Sanders supporters are concerned about whether he can draw support around college campuses at a time when classes have been canceled and students have returned home, in some cases to out-of-state locations.
Biden’s campaign has been texting voters and has sought to roll out attention-grabbing endorsements.
The campaign held a tele-town hall with Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a prominent African American congressman and a Biden campaign co-chair. Biden also held a recent “virtual happy hour” targeting voters in Madison.
“What is normal going to be like in future elections coming up?” Bryce said. “Nobody knows.”
Kim Butler, chairwoman of the Polk County Democratic Party, said she was voting for Sanders to give him leverage to push Biden further to the left. Conceding that there is less excitement around Sanders’s candidacy this time around, she said she may send texts and make some calls on his behalf before Tuesday’s vote.
“I think many people are just hunkered down and not really excited for GOTV,” said Butler, referring to get-out-the-vote efforts. “People are concerned about their health, their family and getting food.”