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The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday declared that in-person voting in the swing state must proceed as planned despite the coronavirus pandemic, blocking an executive order issued earlier the same day by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that attempted to delay Tuesday’s scheduled primary election until June.
It was not immediately clear if the governor would try to appeal to the US Supreme Court, which was already contemplating another case involving counting absentee ballots in Wisconsin.
Democrats have argued for weeks that holding the primary election amid the pandemic could expose people to the virus — and keep turnout extremely low — while Republicans have insisted extending deadlines would undermine election integrity.
In announcing their lawsuit, Republican leaders of the state legislature called the governor’s last-ditch effort to postpone the vote a “constitutional overreach” and said, “Evers can’t unilaterally run the state.”
Evers, who previously said he could not postpone the election on his own, issued his order Monday afternoon delaying in-person voting for the primary until June 9 and directing the legislature to convene on Tuesday afternoon. Wisconsin’s election was the last April in-person primary that had not yet been delayed.
In its 4-2 decision, the state Supreme Court blocked the provision that suspended voting, but said the legislature could still convene on Tuesday.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly — who was appointed by Republican former governor Scott Walker — tweeted on Monday afternoon before the decision urging “clerks, poll workers, and voters to stand ready to conduct the election” as scheduled on Tuesday. He abstained from the court’s ruling.
Evers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the absentee voting case “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.”
At least 15 states have postponed primary voting dates due to the pandemic — and Evers and other Democrats pleaded to do the same in Wisconsin — but Republicans who control the state legislature balked.
The GOP has long tried to suppress voter turnout, particularly by people of color in swing states; in the lawsuit about the absentee ballot filed last week, the Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Republicans called on courts to order Wisconsin’s primary to proceed as scheduled and block efforts to extend the timeline for counting ballots.
Ruling largely in favor of Democrats, however, US district court judge William Conley ruled on Thursday that ballots received by April 13 must be counted regardless of when they are postmarked — six days after the original deadline for officials to receive ballots. On Friday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Republicans’ request to block that lower court ruling.
The next day, Republicans filed an emergency application at the Supreme Court saying, “Requiring a state to permit unlimited absentee voting for almost a week after election day presents significant dangers to election integrity, voter confidence and the orderly administration of an election that already has strained state resources due to the difficult circumstances associated with COVID-19.”
The Democratic National Committee countered there had been a backlog of 21,590 requested mail-in ballots — driven by voters who wanted to vote absentee during the pandemic — as of April 2.
“It appears that tens of thousands of voters may not even receive their requested absentee ballots by election day,” said a response filed at the Supreme Court by Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, who added, “Thousands of voters at minimum will be disenfranchised if their requested absentee ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday the 7th.”
The Democrats’ filing went on to argue that the Republican plan “could exacerbate the unfolding COVID-19 public health disaster. If voters are not confident their absentee ballots will be counted, this will drive more people to vote in-person on election day, thereby increasing the risks of community spread through polling places in cities and towns throughout Wisconsin.”
The US Supreme Court had not issued an order on the case when this article was published.