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Editorial: Wisconsin must extend its election

Editorial: Wisconsin must extend its election

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A debate is raging in Wisconsin over whether to delay Tuesday's election in order to protect poll workers and voters from the coronavirus pandemic.

Civil rights groups, voting rights groups and mayors of Wisconsin's largest cities have proposed a delay, and that makes sense. When people are being told to stay at home in order to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, they should not be given a conflicting message to go out, stand in lines and interact with poll workers in order to cast a ballot. And, because so many Wisconsin poll workers have decided — for sound public health reasons — to remain at home rather than work at polling places on April 7, the number of locations where ballots can be cast has been dramatically reduced, creating confusion and uncertainty that undermines the basic premises of a free and fair election.

Democratic and Republican leaders in more than a dozen other states have agreed to delays — with many resetting presidential primaries and state elections for June 2. Yet, the Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have blocked moves to address the danger. And, so far, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has refused to act unilaterally to protect public health and democracy — despite the fact that, by a 51-44 margin in the latest Marquette University Law School poll, voters have indicated that they favor a postponement of the election.

Now, we are at the critical point for deciding what to do, and the governor must act — in conjunction with the Legislature, if possible — or on his own, if necessary. As James Conway, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin, has told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "It just seems really irresponsible to make this one giant exception. From a public health stand it's both the wrong message and it's taking an enormous gamble."

He's right. The stalemate must be broken.

So let's talk about an alternative to postponement that should be acceptable to everyone. Let's talk about an extension of the election.

U.S. District Judge William Conley has offered a rough outline for how to go forward. After reviewing lawsuits seeking a delay in the April 7 balloting, the judge went to the extraordinary length of pointing out last week that, “the state of Wisconsin is ignoring (public health) data and endangering its public" when he urged postponement of voting. The judge complained that, “The state of Wisconsin’s Legislature and governor are not willing to step up and say there’s a public health crisis and make it absolutely clear that we should not be allowing poll workers and voters to congregate on April 7.”

Judge Conley said he did not have the authority to delay the election, but he took a few steps to mitigate against the damage to democracy. He extended absentee voting to deal with the crush of last-minute requests for an alternative to in-person voting in Tuesday's scheduled Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, and nonpartisan contests for the state Supreme Court and county and municipal posts. He ordered the state to let voters request absentee ballots until 5 p.m. on April 3. And, because it will take time to process those requests, get ballots mailed to voters, and get them returned, the judge ordered election officials to count absentee ballots received by 4 p.m. on April 13 — six days after the former deadline of 8 p.m. on April 7. Critically, the judge's order says that ballots do not have to be postmarked on a particular day, so long as clerks get them by April 13.

What Judge Conley ordered was not a delay, but an brief extension.

That is the beginning of a credible response. But it's not sufficient.

Here's why: Wisconsinites who did not request absentee ballots by April 3 now have no option except in-person voting. Yet, communities across the state do not have enough poll workers to open regular polling places. In Milwaukee, for instance, the plan is to reduce the number of polling places from 180 to five. That's outrageous.

"Milwaukee has over 595,000 people and five places to vote," said union activist and former congressional candidate Randy Bryce.

State Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said, “I am not confident that we have the proper things in place to get people to know they don’t have to choose between their health and voting,” Bowen said. “Being socially distant with 5,000 people — how is that going to be possible?”

It won't be possible. The plan to go forward with in-person voting is unworkable by any democratic standard that would be considered reasonable.

Indeed, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has suggested, it is a form of voter suppression in a city with substantial African American and Latino populations.

What to do? Don't ask voters to cast ballots on Tuesday. Instead, extend the period for requesting and casting absentee ballots so that voters do not have to risk getting a deadly disease in order to vote in the presidential primaries, and in state and local elections.

Essentially, this is what Gov. Evers proposed Friday, when he signed an executive order calling on the Legislature to go into special session to take up changes to the upcoming spring election.

"I’m asking the Legislature to take up legislation allowing an all-mail election, to send a ballot to every registered voter who has not already requested one by May 19, and to extend the time for those ballots to be received to May 26," Evers said. 

That's not a postponement. That's an extension. And it makes total sense. It would:

1. Protect poll workers and voters in a time of pandemic, when public health officials are warning against going out and participating in large gatherings — like elections.

2. Allow clerks to efficiently process absentee ballot requests that they already have.

3. Allow all voters and potential voters to learn about and engage with the absentee voting process.

4. Assure that Wisconsin has a fair and free high-turnout election.

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On Saturday, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald cavalierly rejected the request. They opened and closed the special session in a matter of seconds. That inspired Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler to write, "The whole country should tune in to what Republicans are doing now in Wisconsin. It’s a preview of how they’ll politically weaponize Coronavirus on a national scale."

We hope Wikler is wrong. We hope that Vos and Fitzgerald will reconsider. There is time to do so. Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine shut down in-person voting just hours before that state's March 17 primary, and extended voting mail voting until April 28. The last-minute intervention succeeded in avoiding a dangerous Election Day while preserving democracy.

Vos and Fitzgerald can negotiate with the governor. It is likely that an agreement could by reached for a narrower extension if they prefer. But they have to recognize that in-person voting Tuesday is unsafe and undemocratic.

If they fail to reconsider, the governor should, under the authority vested in him, order the extension that he has proposed. There is no question that he has the authority to act. As Madison City Attorney Michael May explained in a memorandum issued Thursday, because Evers is empowered to "authorize and implement all emergency measures necessary to control communicable diseases," it is clear that that, "the governor and (the state Secretary of Health Services) could postpone the April 7 election in order to achieve the control of disease and the security of persons."

The governor does not have to postpone the election. But, one way or another, he must extend it.

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