Gov. Tony Evers has rescheduled the special election for Wisconsin’s northern 7th Congressional District to take place on May 12, with the special primary set to coincide with the Feb. 18 spring primary.
He also called on the Legislature to pass legislation to address the confusion that has resulted from a disparity between state and federal law as to when special elections can be held, and to reimburse local municipalities for special election costs.
In a statement Friday, Evers said the new dates were chosen based on federal law, portions of state law not preempted by federal law and on consultations with the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Wisconsin Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Justice.
Evers had originally scheduled a special election for Jan. 27, putting the primary on Dec. 30. But he later canceled that date after it was determined it would violate a federal law that requires at least 45 days between a primary and general election to accommodate overseas absentee ballots. That conflicts with state law, which requires just 28 days between a primary and election.
“The people of Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District deserve to have a voice in Congress,” Evers said in the statement. “The revised timeline for the special election will ensure that voters will have the full protections afforded to them under federal law, reduce the administrative burden and cost for county and municipal clerks, and ensure that all candidates are treated fairly by keeping the nomination paper deadline the same as what was set in Executive Order #46.”
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, argued Friday that the Democratic governor could have scheduled the election sooner, on the April 7 spring election, but instead chose to pursue an “obvious partisan gain.”
“Tony Evers and the Democrats are terrified of rural voters and there are no limits to the lengths they’ll go to suppress their votes,” Jefferson said in a statement. “First, Evers sought to hold an election on a Monday during the holiday season under the guise of getting prompt representation for district residents. Now he needlessly pushes off the general election until after the regularly scheduled April 7th election in an effort to stack the deck for his liberal partisan Supreme Court candidates. His partisan motives will not be lost on voters in the 26 counties who will now have to vote twice in general elections in order to have their votes fully counted.”
State law does allow a special election to be held concurrently with the spring election, but Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said the 49-day gap between the primary and special election would make it extremely difficult to certify results and print ballots in time to meet the federal 45-day law.
Magney said it’s difficult to estimate the cost of a special primary.
Evers also called on state lawmakers to fix the state’s special election law to align with federal law “so this impossible situation doesn’t arise in the future.”
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He also urged Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to push through a bipartisan effort to reimburse municipalities for certain costs associated with special elections. The Senate passed the bill on Oct. 8.
Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said reimbursement legislation is available to be scheduled in the Assembly and will be taken up.
Vos, in a statement, criticized how long it has taken for the governor to set the special election.
“It’s about time that Governor Evers finally corrected his mistake for calling an election that violated the law by disenfranchising military voters and would have suppressed the rural vote,” Vos said. “It’s clear that after the way this election was mishandled, there needs to be a shorter time frame to call special elections so Governor Evers can’t drag his feet again.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not comment.
Last year Republican Gov. Scott Walker declined for months to set a special election to fill legislative vacancies until multiple state courts ordered him to do so.
Five candidates have announced for the 7th Congressional District special election so far, including Republicans Jason Church, Michael Opela Sr. and state Sen. Tom Tiffany, and Democratic candidates Tricia Zunker and Lawrence Dale.
Candidates are running to fill the seat left vacant by former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, who resigned after eight years on Sept. 23, citing complications with the baby his wife delivered earlier this month.
The winner of the special election will serve through the end of 2020 and will have to run again in the November 2020 election in order to serve a full two-year term.
Wisconsin’s 7th District covers all or parts of 20 central, northern and northwestern Wisconsin counties and is the state’s largest congressional district geographically. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney carried the district with 51% of the vote, compared with 48% for then-President Barack Obama. In 2016, Trump won it 57% to 37% over Democrat Hillary Clinton.