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Days before election, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers urges lawmakers to allow for mail-in voting only

Days before election, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers urges lawmakers to allow for mail-in voting only

Gov. Tony Evers is calling on the Republican-controlled Legislature to meet in special session three days before the April 7 spring election to bring a near total halt to in-person voting. 

The first-term Democratic executive, who has faced criticism from some in his party over his handling of the spring election amid the coronavirus pandemic, is urging lawmakers to pass a bill allowing an all-mail election in which ballots would be accepted until May 26.

The call differs from one he made last week when he pushed to transition to a mail-in election by sending ballots to all of the state's more than 3 million registered voters. Evers' new plan would extend the election as well as give officials more time to print and mail the materials before sending them out.

"Yeah it's late in the game, there's no question, but it's things we've discussed before, there's been more time to chew on it," he said in a virtual press conference Friday afternoon, adding he's talking to legislative leaders about these issues previously. 

Evers' order directs lawmakers to meet in special session at 4 p.m. Saturday to take up legislation that would send a ballot to every registered voter who hadn't already requested one by May 19. The legislation would also allow polling places to be open for a total of eight hours between now and Mary 19 to accommodate voters with disabilities, allowing them to cast ballots in person. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos slammed Evers, saying he "flip-flopped" on the issue and that they continue supporting what he "has supported for weeks: the election should continue as planned on Tuesday." 

"Unfortunately, it's this type of feckless leadership Wisconsin has come to expect of the governor in the face of this crisis," they said. "Instead of remaining strong to ensure our representative democracy continues, he caves under political pressure from national liberal special interest groups." 

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While the governor has the power to call a special session, lawmakers aren't required to meet or take up the legislation he wants. Republican leaders have consistently expressed support for holding the election as planned. 

In the past, Evers' special session calls have been ignored or supplemented by additional GOP-backed legislation. For example, lawmakers in November gaveled-in and gaveled-out in under a minute after refusing to take up two gun control measures Democrats wanted. 

Evers didn't rule out issuing a last-minute order related to the election if lawmakers didn't act, adding the administration would be "looking at whatever action we can take."

But he discouraged drawing comparisons between Wisconsin and Ohio, where the state's Republican governor last month postponed the election the night before by issuing a statewide health emergency order. That's because, Evers noted, Ohio just had the presidential primary on the ballot, while Wisconsin also has local elections.

"We will continue to find ways to make sure Wisconsinites are safe and that’s our bottom line," he said.  

Evers has had the ability to call a special session at any point in the last few weeks, though he has refrained from doing so until Friday. 

Separately, Evers in the past has stressed the importance of not delaying the election in order to ensure that terms for local officials, including mayors and city and county officials, are seamless, and that localities aren't left without leadership in a time of crisis. 

On Friday, he told reporters his proposed legislation would extend term limits for elected officials to ensure that doesn't occur. 

Evers' directive came a day after a federal judge pushed back the deadline for local clerks to receive absentee ballots from April 7 at 8 p.m. to April 13 at 4 p.m., though the order didn't delay in-person voting.

Calling the election “ill-advised in terms of the public health risks and the likelihood of a successful election,” U.S. Judge William Conley knocked Evers and the state Legislature for their failure to "consider the public health ahead of any political considerations." 

"The Wisconsin State Legislature and Governor apparently are hoping … that the efforts of the WEC Administrator, her staff, the municipalities and poll workers, as well as voters willing to ignore the obvious risk to themselves and others of proceeding with in-person voting, will thread the needle to produce a reasonable voter turnout and no increase in the dissemination of COVID-19,” he wrote. 

As of Friday, 1,912 have tested positive for COVID-19 across Wisconsin while 37 have died, including one new death in Dane County, health officials announced Friday. Meanwhile, 22,377 have tested negative in the state. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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