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Wisconsin primary chaos highlights challenges of elections amid COVID-19

A worker helps voter outside the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building Monday March 30, 2020, in Milwaukee. The city is now allowing drive up early voting for the state's April 7 election. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
A worker helps voter outside the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building Monday March 30, 2020, in Milwaukee. The city is now allowing drive up early voting for the state's April 7 election. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Only hours before polls were set to open for the Wisconsin primary election, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order suspending all in-person voting and effectively postponing the election. That order held for a few hours Monday before the Supreme Court overturned it.

The last-minute intervention by the governor followed a partisan clash between Wisconsin's Democrat governor and Republican-controlled legislature about extending the primary deadline and shifting to an entirely vote-by-mail election to avoid exposing voters to COVID-19.

After meeting in several emergency sessions over the weekend and again Monday morning, the Legislature rejected the governor's plan and moved to hold the election on Tuesday as planned, prompting Evers to act unilaterally.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that Evers lacked the authority to move the election. The court decision means the election will take place Tuesday.

"I had hoped that the Legislature would do its part—just as the rest of us are—to help keep people healthy and safe," said Gov. Evers explaining his decision to postpone the primary. "But as municipalities are consolidating polling locations, and absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing. The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order today."

The state is currently under stay-at-home orders and all nonessential businesses have been closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Ten mayors of major cities warned that allowing people to go to the polls would put "hundreds of thousands of citizens at risk."

District Judge William Conley advised against holding the election as planned, saying in a ruling late last week that it was "ill-advised in terms of the public health risks and the likelihood of a successful election."

In that ruling, Conley refused to postpone the election, however, officials will have until April 13 to report the results of the election. It is not clear if that order will stand. Wisconsin Republicans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it.


As Evers' indicated, accommodating in-person voting looked increasingly impossible. Last week, the Wisconsin Election Commission reported a 7,000-person shortage of poll workers. The city of Milwaukee, which typically has 180 voting sites was expected to have a dozen or fewer. Members of the National Guard were scheduled to be deployed to fill the need for poll workers.

The state is also looking at a crunch to process an unprecedented number of absentee ballots. As of Monday, nearly 1.3 million Wisconsin voters had requested an absentee ballot. That's more than five times the number of absentee voters who cast ballots in the 2016 spring primary.

Wisconsin is now the last holdout of 15 states that postponed in-person primaries or extended absentee voting due to the pandemic.

Many of those states are implementing patchwork solutions to ensure voters don't have to choose their health over casting a ballot. That includes relying even more on absentee voting. With public health officials warning that another wave of coronavirus could hit again in the fall, there are lingering questions about how prepared the country will be to vote in November.

Vote-by-mail will inevitably have a role to play in the November general election, explained Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election security organization. "The real issue is for states that aren't used to getting a significant percentage of votes by mail. How can they ramp up and how can they do it in a way that will not increase chaos or security risks?"

Schneider explained it will take resources and preparation well ahead of November. "It's doable but there has to be the political will and the leadership to do it," she said.

Only five states have all-mail elections: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Other states typically see a large volume of absentee ballots and have the infrastructure to both print, send and then process ballots. California typically counts 65% of its ballots as mail-in and it's one of 28 states and the District of Columbia that allows any registered voter to vote absentee without an excuse.

Wisconsin has typically seen less than 10% of ballots cast by mail. It is also one of several states that requires absentee ballots to be signed by a witness. Before the ballot is counted, election workers have to confirm the identity and status of the voter and the witness.

"For the states with all vote-by-mail, it took them years to get to that point," explained Barr Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison. They slowly increased the share of voting by mail, set up drop boxes and scaled back polling places over time. "Many states have very low levels of mail voting, like Wisconsin. So, it seems inconceivable that one could go to a full vote-by-mail election by November in those states."

According to the U.S. Census, only 21% of Americans voted by mail in the 2016 election.


In Washington, several top Democrats are pushing legislation to help states expand vote-by-mail systems ahead of the November presidential election.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled that the next installment of coronavirus relief will include resources to help states adapt to mail-in ballots. Last week, Pelosi insisted that Congress should provide funds "to facilitate the reality of life: that we are going to have to have more vote by mail." The most recent stimulus package had $400 million for election assistance, far less than the $4 billion requested initially by House Democrats.

On the other side of the Capitol, Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced legislation to ensure all voters can vote by mail without offering an excuse and also have up to 20 days of early in-person voting.

As was the case in Wisconsin, the calls to expand mail-in voting met with resistance from Republicans, particularly President Donald Trump. Amid Democrats push for more absentee voting, Trump told Fox & Friends last week that if he agreed to the reforms "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

At a Friday press conference, Trump shot down the idea of expanding mail-in voting "because I think a lot of people cheat."

According to Greg Palast, an investigative reporter and author of the best-selling book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," a crash program to shift much of the country to vote-by-mail would likely benefit Trump.

"The virus has voted for Donald Trump. Its real simple," Palast said, citing studies that show mail-in voting is typically less reliable than in-person voting at the ballot box. "If you go to vote-by-mail, there's no way Trump loses. If you don't go to vote-by-mail, we die," he said, citing the coronavirus threat. "It's a helluva choice."

According to a 2012 study by Charles Stewart III, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, as many as one-fifth of all ballot requests are rejected mail-in ballots.

In the 2008 election, 3.9 million requested ballots were never received, 2.9 million ballots mailed to voters were never returned and 800,000 returned ballots were rejected. Those figures amounted to 21% of all ballot requests, the study concluded.

Palast's research suggests that students, renters, low-income voters and minorities were more likely not to receive an absentee ballot or have errors that caused their ballots to be rejected. "This idea that voting by mail helps the Democrats. No, it doesn't," he said.

The following states either postponed their primaries or canceled in-person voting in favor of mail-in ballots on an extended deadline: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wyoming and Puerto Rico.

Six of those states will be voting on June 2. The candidates will be competing for 686 delegates, the second-largest prize after Super Tuesday's 1,344 delegates.

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