MADISON – In a historic move less than 24 hours before polls were set to open, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers shut down Tuesday’s election to avoid causing more illness and deaths in Wisconsin as the number of coronavirus infections surges.
Evers issued an executive order Monday that bars in-person voting Tuesday and moves the state’s election to June 9. It calls lawmakers back into session this week to decide whether the election should be held at a different date.
The move is likely to be challenged by Republican lawmakers who want to keep polls open and adjourned the Legislature on Monday without taking up measures Evers called for Friday to delay the election.
“It could end up in the Supreme Court yet today, but the bottom line is the people of Wisconsin, they don’t care about the fighting between Democrats and Republicans – they’re scared,” Evers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I’m standing up for them. I’m standing up for those people who are afraid, and that’s why I’m doing this.”
The governor’s decision came a day after U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned this week will be the nation’s worst as it battles the virus outbreak, which has infected more than 300,000 people and killed more than 10,000 in the USA.
“This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives, quite frankly,” Adams told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized. It’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that.”
Evers’ order is probably the last move he can make to try to stop in-person voting Tuesday.
Evers argued Monday he has the power to suspend voting even without legislative action. Friday, he said he couldn’t make changes without lawmakers, saying “my hands are tied.”
On the ballot is the presidential primary, a referendum on crime victims’ rights and races for state Supreme Court and offices across the state, including Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.
Evers called in lawmakers for a special legislative session Saturday to stop in-person voting and delay the election until May, but Republicans who control the Legislature adjourned without taking up any measures.
The governor and Republican lawmakers agreed until last week to keep the election in place to ensure local government offices that had terms expiring in April are filled.
Friday, Evers switched course as more illnesses and deaths mounted.
GOP lawmakers blasted the governor for the reversal and said the election must take place to preserve government function.
Part of Evers’ order is asking lawmakers to extend expiring terms of office until after the election.
Speaking just before Evers made his announcement, the head of the state Elections Commission said clerks were well aware the rules of the election could be upended with little notice.
“Change is normal for us,” said Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the commission. “We’re pretty well practiced at making changes at the last minute.”
Republicans could file a challenge in any circuit court or take it directly to the state Supreme Court, which conservatives control 5-2.
Democrats and groups aligned with them could try to get the issue before a federal judge to try to keep Evers’ order in place. They have a better shot in federal court than state court because U.S. District Judge William Conley has said he believes it is a terrible idea to send people to the polls Tuesday.
Conley declined last week to delay in-person voting, saying doing so was beyond his authority. That power belongs to Evers and lawmakers, he ruled, and he signaled they should prevent in-person voting because of the pandemic.
Though Conley didn’t delay the election, he gave people until April 13 to return absentee ballots, provided they had requested them before the election. That part of his decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the matter gets to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the case may be handled by a smaller number of justices than usual.
Conservative Justice Daniel Kelly is on the ballot, and he has declined to participate in two recent election cases to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. If he stepped aside in this case, the conservative majority would shrink from 5-2 to 4-2.
Having a six-member court raises the possibility of a deadlock, as happened in December in a case regarding whether people who are believed to have moved should be taken off the polls.
Contact Molly Beck at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.