MADISON – The Wisconsin Supreme Court reinstated Tuesday’s election Monday, five hours after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called it off because of the widening coronavirus pandemic.
In a brief 4-2 ruling, the court undid an emergency order that Evers issued that would have closed the polls. Their decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by Republican lawmakers.
Monday’s on-again, off-again election triggered chaos across the state as election officials told clerks to continue preparing for an election because they did not know whether the polls would open.
Before the court acted, at least two local government leaders as of Monday afternoon issued their own orders to block in-person voting.
”It could end up in the Supreme Court yet today, but the bottom line is the people of Wisconsin, they don’t care about the fighting between Democrats and Republicans — they’re scared,” Evers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before issuing the order. “I’m standing up for them. I’m standing up for those people who are afraid and that’s why I’m doing this.”
Evers’ executive order bars in-person voting Tuesday and moves the state’s spring election to June 9. It also calls lawmakers back into session this week to decide whether the election should be held at a different date.
But the move came four days after the governor said he had no legal authority to change the election and Republicans immediately used the governor’s own words against him at the state Supreme Court.
The Legislature’s Republican leaders, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, called Evers’ order an unconstitutional action that would be undone.
“The clerks of this state should stand ready to proceed with the election. The governor’s executive order is clearly an unconstitutional overreach,” they said in a joint statement.
Republican lawmakers want to keep polls open and just hours before Evers issued his order adjourned the Legislature without taking up a plan to delay the election that Evers requested on Friday.
The legislative leaders within two hours of Evers’ new order filed a petition with the Supreme Court to immediately block its implementation.
“This is another last-minute flip-flop from the governor on the April 7th election. The governor himself has repeatedly acknowledged he can’t move the election. Just last week a federal judge said he did not have the power to cancel the election and Governor Evers doesn’t either. Governor Evers can’t unilaterally run the state,” Fitzgerald and Vos said.
The governor’s decision came a day after U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned this week will be the nation’s worst as it battles the virus outbreak, which has infected more than 300,000 people and killed more than 10,000 in the USA.
”This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives, quite frankly,” Adams told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized. It’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that.”
Evers acknowledged he held a different position on whether he could delay the state’s spring election and said the outbreak’s scope and effects on recruiting poll workers now gives him the authority.
”It’s clear we weren’t going to have a legislative solution, so following science like I always have, it became clear the safety of people was jeopardized and will be jeopardized at the polls,” Evers said. “We only have five (polling locations) open in Milwaukee. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that’s not going to work.”
In his order, Evers cited a portion of the state constitution that “establishes the purpose of State Government is to insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare.”
He also cited a state law that gives the governor powers during an emergency to “issue such orders as he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property.”
On Friday, Evers said he couldn’t make changes without lawmakers — saying “my hands are tied.” He said Monday he now believes he can make the call on his own.
”Circumstances have changed,” Evers said in response to why he believes he now has the power to issue such an order. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of deaths have increased as well as the number of people who are determined to be positive.”
Evers also cited the number of poll workers municipalities needed. But it’s unclear why Evers said Friday he didn’t have such powers, after cases continued to increase and a poll worker shortage became clear.
The governor’s order is likely the last move he can make to try to stop in-person voting Tuesday. “There’s not a Plan B. There’s not a Plan C,” Evers said.
Wisconsin’s situation nearly mirrors the day before Ohio’s May 17 presidential primary election. Ultimately, the state’s health secretary stepped in the night before the election and closed polling places. State lawmakers convened to decide the new election date.
On the Wisconsin ballot is the presidential primary, a referendum on a crime victims rights and races for state Supreme Court and local offices across the state, including Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.
Evers’ order also extends the terms of expiring local offices until after the election is held. That’s needed to avoid having vacancies on county boards and other local offices across the state.
Speaking just before Evers made his announcement, the head of the state Elections Commission told reporters that clerks are well aware the rules of the spring election could be upended with little notice.
“Change is normal for us,” said Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the commission. “We’re pretty well practiced at making changes at the last minute.”
Her advice to clerks after the order was virtually the same.
”While the Governor has called for moving the election, we can be certain there will be very fast moving litigation,” she said. “Therefore, we must continue making preparation in earnest for tomorrow. If the election is moved to the 9th we will adjust accordingly, but all we can do today is prepare for tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, clerks are stuck in the middle without clear guidance for now.
”I am so frustrated with our entire state leadership right now I can barely stand it,” Carey Danen, De Pere’s city clerk, said. “They don’t realize the stress they’ve put us under with all of this back and forth.”
Read more at USAToday.com.