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Coronavirus: Wisconsin's April 7 Election Still On Despite Safer-At-Home Order

Maayan Silver
A polling place at the Charles Allis Art Museum during Wisconsin's February state and local primary.

More than half a dozen states have pushed back presidential primaries because of the coronavirus outbreak. Wisconsin, which has a primary on April 7, hasn’t. State leaders are holding on tightly to that date despite a public health crisis that’s getting worse by the minute — and a safer-at-home order that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday.

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One reason Evers and the GOP-controlled state Legislature aren’t changing the date is that it’s not just the nearly-over Democratic primary on the ballot.

“I just want to make sure people understand the complexity of our spring general election,” said Evers. “It’s not a primary election — it’s only a primary election for the presidential candidates.”

For state and local candidates, it’s a general election. Many mayors and county officials whose decisions are crucial during this pandemic are also on the ballot.

“How long do we potentially leave offices not filled because we’re into July and August, and we haven’t held a general election?” queried Evers, referencing the uncertainty of American life under COVID-19.

Many high-profile leaders here have said the state should delay, including members of the state elections commission and Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and United States Secretary of Health & Human Services under President George W. Bush. 

Commissioner Ann Jacobs said, "I no longer believe that we are able to fairly and properly administer this election without delay or postponement. I believe we’re putting people at risk."

"I no longer believe that we are able to fairly and properly administer this election without delay or postponement. I believe we’re putting people at risk." — Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs

Milwaukee voter Sarah Stangle agrees. “I still will be getting an absentee ballot for sure because I don’t think it’s safe to go to the polls, honestly,” she says. 

Calls to postpone the election intensified on Monday in a press conference by community organizations like Souls to the Polls, the NAACP and Voces De La Frontera, that services Wisconsin’s Latinx community.

Yet other officials, including Dean Knutson, chair of the election commission, say the election must go on, and that it's equally or more critical to society than getting gas or groceries.

WUWM's Maayan Silver speaks with Dean Knutson, chair of the Wisconsin Elections Commission about the spring election and continuity of government.

Election officials point out that Wisconsin has no-excuse mail-in voting and are urging the public to go that route. People around the state are listening, requesting absentee ballots at a record-setting pace. As of March 24, clerks had received more than 550,000 absentee applications, more than the total requests for three of the last four spring elections. 

Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, says most people will probably vote absentee. But it’s impossible for Wisconsin to shift to an all-mail-in election at this point, says Barry Burden, University of Wisconsin political science professor.

“There simply isn't time to print enough outs and envelopes for everyone who might is registered and to distribute those,” says Burden.

Wisconsin has used in-person polling heavily in the past, and that’s the way most voters have usually participated, he says.

“I think the state is leaning in a direction more of offering lots of alternatives to voters given their complicated living circumstances, but not taking away any option that has existed in the past,” Burden says.

Milwaukeean August “Augie” Ray has no intention of changing his plans.

“I am 83 years old, and I have voted in every election that I was eligible to vote in,” he says. “And I intend to vote in the upcoming election in April, and I intend to vote at the polls.”

If the polls are open on April 7, Ray says he'll walk two blocks to his polling place and bring a sanitizer wipe.

Democrats have sued, saying the unusual circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic justify extending deadlines for requesting and filing absentee ballots in addition to waiving voter ID rules. A federal court has agreed to extend the deadline for people to register online to March 30, a pre-requisite to requesting an absentee ballot online.

Republicans say deadlines were put in place for a reason, and argue that clerks in rural areas aren’t ensuring enough early voting takes place. Their position has been that Democratic urban strongholds like Milwaukee and Madison offer generous early voting options, whereas rural areas, which have skewed conservative, do not. Though, the City of Milwaukee Election Commission abruptly ended in-person early voting Monday because of concerns for the health of election workers and the public.

But that’s actually contrary to state law. Clerks have to provide some in-person early voting despite health concerns, says Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

“They can’t just say that nobody’s going to get to come into city hall, or village hall, or town hall, to vote,” he says. “They have to offer some hours. They can adjust that based on their own needs. But they can’t just say we’re not doing it.”

It’s uncertain how that policy would be enforced.

There are plenty of other challenges, too. Clerks are wrestling with how to process all of those absentee ballots and how to find cleaning supplies for polling places. Half of the state’s more than 20,000 poll workers are over 60, a demographic at the highest risk from the coronavirus.

The state elections commission sent a letter to the governor requesting immediate action on these issues and to get comprehensive public health guidance for election officials.

Ultimately, expect voter turnout to be lower, says Burden, the University of Wisconsin political science professor.

“Fortunately, the Democratic presidential nomination has mostly been settled by this point,” he says. “So that's one worry that at least is off the table. And I think Wisconsin will be of some value for election officials around the country to see how a state that had some weeks to prepare adapted.”

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.
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