Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

A group of Milwaukee leaders on Monday joined the list of officials and organizers calling for the postponement of spring elections in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This follows a call from a bipartisan group of mayors in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley region on Friday pressing for the state to delay the election and move it to entirely mail-in balloting.

Such a move would require action from the Legislature and the governor, or a court order.  

On the ballot is the presidential primary, along with general elections for the state Supreme Court and local offices.

Dem. Gov. Tony Evers has so far resisted the calls, even as he’s preparing to issue an order on Tuesday to shut down non-essential business and travel to stem the spread. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has also said the election should proceed.

Monday’s call consisted of activists and healthcare workers in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, who said Evers’ announcement of a “safer at home” order only reinforces how any in-person voting on April 7 puts the public in danger to further community spread.

Sandy Pasch, a nurse and former Assembly Dem lawmaker, told reporters in a teleconference that postponement of the election and searching for alternative voting methods to prevent spread is the only ethical option.

“How can we expect the elderly, voters with children, to stand apart in lines snaking around our neighborhoods?” she asked. “How can we ethically justify the harm to poll workers, voters and their families?”

Meanwhile, Souls to the Polls organizer Reverend Gregory Lewis said he has tested positive for coronavirus and is in self-quarantine. He said if he can’t even go vote, he doesn’t want to think about what challenges his neighbors have to reach the polls.

“Our community will be forced to decide between our right to vote and their own safety,” Lewis said. “And once again, the right to vote will lose.”

Others from today’s teleconference included: Milwaukee Area Technical College Professor Dr. Thomas Kalluvila; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Milwaukee Branch Legal Redress Chair William Sulton; League of Women Voters of Wisconsin President Debra Cronmiller; and Voces de la Frontera Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz.

On Friday, Dem Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich told reporters in a teleconference that conducting the election with the normal approach would be “a logistical trainwreck,” due to the close quarters of polling stations and because many poll workers are in the most at-risk age group for the virus. He also did not rule out legal action.

“We are asking for relief from the Legislature and from our governor, because there is no light at the end of this tunnel,” he said. “We can administer this election in a different way.”

Genrich, alongside GOP Mayors Tim Hanna, of Appleton, and Dean Kaufert, of Neenah, said they want the election to be conducted entirely by mail-in ballot, and that the election should be postponed to give municipal clerks time to adjust to the change.

Kaufert warned that if a single member of his clerk’s office tested positive for the coronavirus, the entire office would be shut down with workers going into self-quarantine.

Genrich said he is in talks with city attorneys on potential legal action against the state if nothing happens. He said holding the election on April 7 could amount to voter suppression by forcing older Wisconsinites to choose between voting and their health, as well as a potential shortage of workers to run the polls. 

Kaufert said he wants to see Green Bay’s finalized plan before he decides to go along with the suit, stressing that “time is of the essence” to do something. 

“We don’t want to do what Ohio did the night before,” Kaufert said, referencing Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s move immediately before his state’s presidential primary to close polls. “If this thing continues to escalate, it’s going to get worse. Pause is the best action here.”

Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association President Diane Coenen told her organization hasn’t yet formed a stance on the matter. But she and many other clerks are pleading with their representatives to delay the election and extend voting by mail.

Coenen, who clerks for the city of Oconomowoc in Fitzgerald’s Senate district, said lawmakers should use “realistic common sense” and postpone the election. 

She said some municipal clerks told her they would even withhold in-person voting and extend mail-in ballots on their own if lawmakers do nothing.

But Fitzgerald said lawmakers have no plans to take up the issue at this time. He brought up how the Wisconsin Elections Commission had already discussed changing the election in an impromptu meeting and reached no conclusion.

“We understand these are challenging times, but currently we have no plans to change the rules while voting is already underway,” Fitzgerald said. “It seems like leadership from both parties recognizes that April 7th should be Election Day.”

Evers has repeatedly said the April 7 election should move forward as scheduled and encouraged people to vote absentee. He did so again Friday, adding he and his wife requested absentee ballots over the weekend.

“The message still is and will be, ‘Stay at home, vote by mail,'” Evers said.

At least 10 states and Puerto Rico have postponed their election dates in response to the virus.


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