Wisconsin governor calls special session to change election

A worker leaves the the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building on Monday in Milwaukee.
(Associated Press)

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called Friday for the Republican-controlled Legislature to meet in special session to move Wisconsin to an all-mail presidential primary amid fears that voters and poll workers would be exposed to the coronavirus during Tuesday’s election.

Evers wants the session to begin Saturday. He asked lawmakers to take up bills that would create an all-mail election, require clerks to send absentee ballots to every registered voter, and to extend the time to return the those ballots from mid-April to late May.

The governor said during a conference call with reporters that holding the election as planned on Tuesday “is a significant concern and a very unnecessary health risk. I can’t move this election on my own. My hands are tied.”


Evers, a Democrat, has faced criticism for not doing enough to protect voters and poll workers. He previously called for the election to move to absentee only, but Friday was the first time he had called for moving the date.

The special session call means legislative leaders will have to meet, but they’re under no obligation to do anything. Republican leaders didn’t immediately return messages Friday, but they have rejected Evers’ previous pleas to make election changes.

The primary comes as Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders but hasn’t formally clinched the Democratic nomination.

All other state primaries scheduled for April have been delayed to some extent. Wisconsin election officials have expressed skepticism about whether theirs could run smoothly under the circumstances. A judge extended absentee voting to April 13 but has declined to postpone the election.

“We’re proceeding with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes we’re going to be able to cobble together a way [to administer] this election,” said Ann Jacobs, who sits on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which oversees elections in the state. “We are putting people in dangerous situations that are unnecessary.”

With social distancing mandates taking hold, more than 100 Wisconsin municipalities have said they lack enough poll workers to staff voting sites. Evers, who has the state under a stay-at-home order, has called on the National Guard to help fill that gap. And the state faces another problem: So many people have requested mail-in ballots that it’s likely to take days to count them all.


Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii and Louisiana were set to hold elections Saturday, but they’ve pushed those contests back. Louisiana’s presidential primary is now set for June 20. Democrats in Alaska and Wyoming have decided to hold their party-run contests by mail only and have pushed back the deadline for turning in ballots.

No one knows if May or June will be any better for elections, but officials say postponing even for a few weeks gives them a chance to plan for public safety, including expanding the use of absentee ballots, recruiting more poll workers and acquiring cleaning supplies for polling sites.

Evers and Republican legislative leaders initially called for sticking to the scheduled date. Besides the presidential primary, the election will decide hundreds of local races; Evers had said a delay could leave those offices vacant for weeks during the crisis.

Since then, what to do about the election has devolved into a partisan battle. Evers considered shifting the state to an all-mail election but said he couldn’t do it on his own. He asked the Legislature to change statutes to allow local clerks to mail all registered voters an absentee ballot, a request the state GOP blasted as a “fantasy” that couldn’t be done in time.

While local clerks are bracing for a deluge of absentee ballots — more than 1 million have been issued, crushing previous records — poll workers are reluctant to put their health at risk.

Emily Bell, a 39-year-old Milwaukee attorney, was looking forward to her first stint as a poll worker. She still plans to do it, but she’s fearful of interacting with voters; a Facebook photo shows her with a bandanna wrapped around her face and holding up an absentee ballot. She said she has found an N95 mask from a friend in the medical field and plans to shed her clothes and jump in the shower as soon as her shift Tuesday ends.

“I woke up panicking one morning,” she said. “I called my sister crying and said, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ [But] it’s really important work and somebody has to do it.”