Wisconsin governor, in surprise move, calls special session to halt in-person voting in looming primary

In an 11th-hour move, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is calling for a special session of his state’s legislature to overhaul Tuesday’s scheduled primary -- by allowing for an all-mail election, sending absentee ballots to every registered voter and pushing the deadline back until May 26 for ballots to be sent back.

Warning that in-person voting at polling stations would be “a very unnecessary public health risk” as the coronavirus pandemic that has forced most Americans to huddle at home, the Democratic governor signed an executive order on Friday calling the state’s GOP-dominated legislature into special session on Saturday to hold an up-or-down vote on his requests.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

“I can’t move this election or change the rules on my own. My hands are tied,” Evers pleaded in a video released on social media. “I was hopeful that the courts would intervene and help and they did in fact implement some but not all of the common sense changes I’ve been advocating for.”

Wisconsin residents have been urged for weeks to vote by absentee ballot, which already has led to a tidal wave of demand for vote-by-mail ballots. Some areas of the state have a drive-through early voting option.

But unless state lawmakers take action, there will be in-person voting on Tuesday. There’s been a huge plunge in the number of poll workers willing to show up next week, which will likely lead to longer lines and less social distancing as voters show up to cast ballots.

Evers emphasized that many Wisconsin cities – due to the shortage of poll workers – “have significantly condensed the number of polling locations available, creating a dangerous situation where voters, staff, and volunteers will not be able to avoid large groups or practice social distancing when they go out to vote. This is a significant concern and a very unnecessary public health risk.”

The governor urged lawmakers to take this call for a special session seriously. “They must do their part to ensure public safety by convening in special session tomorrow to take up in an up or down vote to send a ballot to every registered voter by May 19 who hasn’t already requested it and to extend the time for those ballots to be received by May 26,” he said.

THE LATEST FROM FOX NEWS ON THE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

On March 17, Florida, Illinois and Arizona were the last states to hold presidential primaries. Since then, 15 states and Puerto Rico – which were scheduled to hold their primaries and caucuses in late March, April or May –  postponed their contests or switched them to nearly entirely by mail or absentee ballot.

Evers, who issued a stay-at-home order for his state, had previously declined to delay the primary – repeatedly stressing that he doesn’t have the unilateral power to postpone the election and send ballots to all voters. Last week he unsuccessfully called on the legislature to send absentee ballots to all registered voters in the state. Even if they had agreed, the logistics may have been overwhelming for county clerks and elections officials.

On Thursday, a federal judge declined to postpone the election in a ruling on a number of lawsuits that aimed to postpone the primary due to health concerns and worries about voter disenfranchisement.

But U.S. District Judge William Conley did mandate that absentee ballots in the primary will be counted if they arrive by April 13 — six days after the election. He also extended by one day -- until Friday -- the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots and allowed voters to cast absentee ballots without witnesses for those who couldn’t safely have their absentee ballot witnessed.

Eighty-four Democratic nomination convention delegates are up for grabs in Tuesday’s presidential primary between clear front-runner Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

But there’s a lot more at stake on Tuesday’s ballot for Wisconsin voters than just the presidential primary contest. There’s an important battle for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat that could influence general election voting rules in the crucial presidential battleground state, as well as numerous mayoral contests including in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.

Sanders called for postponing the primary.

"People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote, which is why 15 states are now following the advice of public health experts and delaying their elections. We urge Wisconsin to join them," the senator said in a statement on Wednesday.

While deferring to Wisconsin officials and declining to take a stance, Biden on Thursday said: “I think you could hold the election as well dealing with mail-in ballots and same-day registration.”

“I think it’s possible to do both, to have both more mail-in ballots” he added. “I think it could be done .. but that’s for them to decide.”

A poll suggests that a majority of Wisconsin voters wanted the primary delayed. A Marquette Law School survey conducted March 24-29 and released on Wednesday indicated that 51 percent of Wisconsin voters say the state’s April 7 primary should be delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak, with 44 percent saying the contest should continue to be held next Tuesday