Why Wasn't Wisconsin's Election Postponed? Two Words: Tony Evers
By Dan O'Donnell
April 5, 2020
Governor Evers is shamelessly trying to blame Republicans for his steadfast refusal to postpone the Spring Election even as he shut down the rest of the state.
In fact, since the moment he announced on March 16th that he was issuing an executive order banning gatherings of 50 people or more in an effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, he insisted that the election would not be affected.
The following morning, he joined WTMJ-AM's Steve Scaffidi for an interview about the order.
"Do you see any reason to move [the election]?" Scaffidi asked. "A lot of people are suggesting that we won't be ready, nor should we be gathering that many people in one place at one time."
"First of all, we have made no decision on that," Evers answered. "And obviously elections are very important, and ours our different, quite frankly, than other states. This is a general election. It's a primary for the presidential race, but it's a general election. We have all sorts of local and county officials on a non-partisan ballot. What we're doing now is making sure people have an opportunity to vote early or absentee. We're up in the several hundreds of thousands who have already done that.
"So it's still early to make that judgment [to postpone the election], and I understand the issues, but elections are important and there's no guarantee if we delay it to June that we're not facing the same thing, and by that time people should have been taking office. It's more complex than the decision [to postpone the presidential primary] in Ohio last week."
Just two days earlier, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, had postponed his state's presidential primary scheduled for the next day even though a court had ordered him not to. Evers promised that he would not do the same thing.
And he reiterated that point later in the day during a conference call with reporters.
"Given this latest restriction," asked Associated Press reporter Scott Bauer, "how can anyone feel good about holding an election where a lot of high-risk people, older people will be manning the polls and certainly more than 10 people will be congregating at polling places. Why is that still a reasonable thing to do?
"Well, we continue to evaluate that," Evers answered. "I just want to make sure that people understand the complexity of our spring general election. It's not a primary election. It's only a primary election for the presidential candidates. We have lots of other nonpartisan officials at the county level, at the state level, and at the local level. So we have to weigh all that.
"And, to be honest with you, your point is a good one but at what point isn't that the case? How long do we potentially leave offices not filled because we're into July or August and we haven't held a general election.
"I encourage people not to compare us to Ohio and we certainly would not wait until the night before the election to make an historic decision like that."
Yet that's exactly what Governor Evers and fellow Democrats are trying to do now.
On March 20th, though, when Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich filed a federal lawsuit seeking to delay the election, Evers strenuously objected.
"Moving this date is not going to solve the problem," Evers told the Associated Press. "We could move it to June, it could be worse in June. It could be worse in May."
His spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, concurred, telling Wisconsin Public Radio that "ensuring the health and safety of Wisconsinites is our top priority, but the governor has said repeatedly that our democracy must continue."
Later that day, Evers signed Executive Order 8, an update to his mass gathering ban from earlier in the week. Whereas his first order was silent on the issue of voting, this one was unambiguous in providing that polling places were exempt from the ban:
Except for long-term care and assisted care facilities, any location or facility used as a polling location or in-person absentee voting. If such a location or facility is prohibited elsewhere in this order, the location or facility may remain open solely for the purpose as serving as a polling location or in-person absentee voting location.
Three days later, after repeatedly saying that he wouldn't issue a stay-at-home order, Evers flip-flopped and announced via a tweet that indeed, Wisconsin would be all but locked down starting Wednesday, March 25.
We have been working hard to ensure the health and safety of the people of our state as we have responded to COVID-19. We’ve taken important steps, but folks, time is of the essence. So today I’m announcing we'll be issuing a #SaferAtHome order tomorrow. Here’s what this means ⬇️— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) March 23, 2020
In a conference call providing details on his "Safer at Home" order a few hours after his tweet announcing it, Evers reiterated that he would not delay the election, but was "considering" the possibility of mail-only voting.
"Are you going to deem polling sites to be 'essential services' and are you giving any thought to making this a mail-only election?" asked Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley.
"Certainly the issue of having as many absentee ballots as possible is absolutely a top priority [and] always has been given the emergency that we're in," Evers answered. "What we're doing now is to make sure that we understand at the state level what needs the local election folks have as it relates to facilities and number of people and all that. We're constantly evaluating that. We're going to be working with them and the Wisconsin Election Commission. But the message still is and will be 'stay at home and vote by mail.'"
Given an opportunity to demand that the election be postponed, Governor Evers instead chose to stay the course and continue to urge voters to cast their ballots by mail. And even when directly asked about the health and safety of poll workers in a follow-up question by CBS 58's Victor Jacobo, Evers insisted on moving ahead with the election and providing workers with personal protective equipment.
"We have talked to mayors about this issue, as far as protective devices, whether it's masks or other things for our poll workers," Evers said. "That's part of the analysis we're doing with all municipalities and the Election Commission to make sure that a. the polling places are safe and b. that the health needs of the people of the State of Wisconsin are met."
On March 26, liberal political group Souls to the Polls sued the state in federal court, seeking a delay in the Spring Election. Days later, that sued was combined with several others seeking expanded absentee voting and the ability for votes to be counted even after Election Day itself.
On March 30, during his Administration's weekly Coronavirus conference call, Governor Evers was asked directly if he expected that the election would happen as planned.
"Nothing has changed from my vantage point," he said. "We have several lawsuits occurring right now. It's part of state law, it's in state law, the date is set, and we're encouraging lots of people to vote absentee, get online, and make that happen, and people are responding to that. So to answer your question, yes [the election] is in place."
The next day, Governor Evers' attorneys argued in a brief in support of the Wisconsin Election Commission in the consolidated lawsuits that the election should not be moved, but rather that the court should minimize in-person voting and allow mail-in ballots to every registered voter.
"In short, as Governor Evers explained on March 30, 2020, Wisconsin is still approaching the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Governor argued. "But no one can say with confidence when the pandemic will subside. Moreover, though the many Wisconsin state agencies working tirelessly to help prepare for our April 7 election in the midst of this pandemic have made tremendous strides, challenges still remain and will continue to remain through election day.
"To the extent that this Court concludes that relief is appropriate, the Governor respectfully submits that this Court should consider a middle path that maintains the democratic process, while also implementing appropriate measures to save lives.
"In general, Wisconsin elections are conducted mostly in-person. But for the April 7, 2020, election, in-person interactions should be minimized. This would be best achieved through a predominantly by-mail election, with in-person voting available as necessary.
"Ultimately, a predominantly-by-mail election, with limited but available in-person voting, would be an achievable middle ground that would help protect Wisconsinites’ right to vote, while also helping to keep them safe."
Three days later, though, everything suddenly changed. POLITICO ran a lengthy story with the headline "Wisconsin Democrats apoplectic over governor's handling of Tuesday primary" and it was brutal.
"Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ refusal to push for a delay of his state’s Tuesday primary has infuriated fellow Democrats in the state, who are now openly accusing him of failing to prevent an impending train wreck," the piece began, and it only got worse from there.
“There’s this enormous conflict between what we need to do in a democracy in the midst of a pandemic. You can’t have a stay-at-home order but then tell millions of people to go stand in line and congregate near one another across the state,” Racine Mayor Cory Mason told the authors. "Having an election in the middle of a stay-at-home order makes no sense. It did not have to be this way.”
"It's a pretty bad idea to go through with this," agreed Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz.
One Democratic strategist who supported Evers' campaign in 2018 was even more blunt, saying that "it’s been a cataclysmic failure. It has been disappointment after disappointment. I do not believe that he’s shown leadership or good judgment during this crisis."
Still, POLITICO noted that "the governor [was] unlikely to change course:"
"Our democracy is essential, it must go on. Keeping people safe is the governor’s top priority but we want people to participate in this election. We want as many people as possible to vote from home," Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff told POLITICO. "We hope the Legislature would work with the governor to extend the time for [ballots] to be counted and to be received."
She dismissed the possibility of the governor attempting to halt the election like DeWine did. “It’s not going to happen," Baldauff said. "He doesn’t want to do it and he also doesn’t have the authority to do it.”
The governor’s office has argued that there's no certain future date when the health crisis would relent. Officials also said that a delay would put at risk hundreds of nonpartisan positions on the ballot — including the mayor of Milwaukee — that under statute would be vacant if the election does not take place on Tuesday. That scenario, the governor's office said, would create even more chaos amid a public health emergency.
The article prompted Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, to demand that the election be postponed:
Wisconsin's election should be safe & fair, but GOP state legislative leaders haven't provided voters w/safety & fairness. The state legislature should take action to postpone the election & remove barriers to safe voting by mail so more voters can vote, not less. #WIMarchForward— Tammy Baldwin (@tammybaldwin) April 2, 2020
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders similarly called for a delay in the election during an interview on MSNBC.
"I think over a dozen states have done that," he told the network's Andrea Mitchell. "The answer, Andrea, is pretty obvious, is we don’t want people to have to risk their lives in order to cast a vote. I think the proper process is as quickly as possible is for all states to allow people to vote by mail, get the word out, get the ballots out, and let people cast their votes without having to line up at a polling booth, have poll workers, often elderly people lining up. That’s a dangerous situation. If we can avoid that, avoid it."
Angie Copas has high blood pressure and asthma, and her job as clerk for the village of Mattoon, Wis., does not provide health insurance. For weeks, voters have streamed into her office to request or cast absentee ballots, and she has no protective equipment, sanitizer or disinfectant wipes.
Next week, she’ll be facing hundreds more voters in person for Wisconsin’s presidential primary and other elections.
“I’m scared,” said Ms. Copas, 43. “On Election Day, we’re exposed to them and everyone they come across. I’m the only person in the office and I run it all.”
As Wisconsin moves ahead with its scheduled elections on Tuesday, which include both presidential primaries, a statewide Supreme Court race and local races, more than 1,850 municipal clerks and thousands more poll workers will be thrust into front-line positions in the nation’s struggle with the coronavirus.
These clerks and poll workers are overwhelmingly older. Some have health conditions that put them at greater risk. And while the state is organizing a last-minute blitz to distribute adequate protective equipment, few have received anything yet.
Suddenly, there was pressure on Governor Evers to delay the election that hadn't been put on him before. And he cracked almost instantly, demanding the very next day that the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature meet in special session on Saturday to craft a bill that would delay the election that legally must occur the first Tuesday after the first Monday in April.
It was the first time he had ever called for a delay...four days before Election Day.
"Yeah, it’s late in the game, there’s no question," Evers said Friday. "But it’s things that have been discussed before, people have had time to chew on it. I’m hopeful that common sense will prevail and we’ll be able to get some solutions to this."
Solutions to what, exactly? Evers' own obstinance? For weeks, he had steadfastly refused to delay the election, even when others asked for it and even sued over it. Now, though, he is shamelessly trying to blame Republicans and pretend that he had nothing to do with an election that is moving forward solely because he demanded it.
Yet now that the rest of the country is asking why, he is trying to deflect from the obvious answer: Because Tony Evers wanted this election to move forward.
Until he suddenly didn't.