By Shereen Siewert
Nearly four dozen state and local representatives in Wisconsin have signed a petition urging DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to use her emergency powers to postpone Tuesday’s election, according to a letter provided Sunday to Wausau Pilot & Review.
Marathon County Supervisors Katie Rosenberg, Ka Lo, Alyson Leahy, Yee Leng Xiong, Jeff Johnson and Jim Bove signed the letter as of early Sunday afternoon. Schofield Alder Kristin Conway and Wausau School Board member Beth Martin have also signed on, joining mayors school board members, alders and supervisors in Milwaukee, Madison, Oneida County, Brown County and other municipalities around the state.
Rosenberg, who is challenging Wausau Mayor Robert Meilke, posted a call on Facebook for other officials to join her in signing the petition.
“Hundreds of thousands of citizens are at risk if we require them to vote at the polls while this pandemic spreads,” Rosenberg wrote.
The letter urges Palm to exercise emergency powers, allowable by state statute, to “implement all emergency measures necessary to control the spread of COVID-19.”
“Specifically, we need you to step up and stop the State of Wisconsin from putting hundreds of thousands of citizens at risk by requiring them to vote at the polls while this ugly pandemic spreads,” the letter reads.
Wisconsin’s primary election is set for Tuesday, April 7, and has been the source of several lawsuits.
The letter reads:
“We thank Governor Evers for the leadership he demonstrated when he declared a state of emergency via Emergency Order #12. We thank him for calling a special session to address this issue. In light of the Legislature’s inexcusable refusal to act, you and your department now are the sole parties in the position to prevent hundreds of thousands of voters and poll workers from potentially being exposed needlessly to this worldwide pandemic.
In his decision just days ago, Judge Conley recognized the important role you play when he said, “As much as the court would prefer the Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards. NOR IS IT APPROPRIATE FOR A FEDERAL DISTRICT COURT TO ACT AS STATE’S CHIEF HEALTH OFFICIAL BY TAKING THAT STEP FOR THEM.” (p.36) (emphasis added)
We want to emphasize that the election has already begun. Hundreds of thousands of people have requested absentee ballots and many of those have already been returned. Those votes must be counted. The real issue now is how we conclude. We must still ensure every eligible voter has the right to vote without jeopardizing their health.”
Though Palm and the DHS have the authority to take action, they do not have the authority to determine modifications necessary to conclude the election. That authority lies in the Legislature and with the governor.
The letter further calls on state lawmakers to meet before April 7 to determine next steps, which could include mailing every registered voter a ballot.
“EVERY other state that faced this issue during the pandemic has crafted a solution that respects democracy and protected the health of their citizens. We must do the same,” the letter states.
“The lives of our constituents depend on it.”
Wisconsin is scheduled to conduct in-person voting on Tuesday despite concern about the health risks to voters and poll workers. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican leaders were initially united in wanting to stick to the election date, but Evers this week reversed course and called for shifting to mail-only and extending absentee voting into May.
U.S. District Judge William Conley this week declined to postpone the election, calling it inappropriate for a federal judge to do so, but handed Democrats and liberal groups a partial victory by extending the absentee voting period.
Republicans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reverse Conley’s order. In their brief Saturday, they argued the extension unfairly creates two different deadlines for voters — one for in-person voting and one for absentees.
They also argued that election returns would leak out after Tuesday’s in-person voting, giving interest groups a chance to “strategically chase down ballots” to help their preferred candidates, and distort voter behavior. Democrats disputed that, noting Conley’s order blocked clerks from reporting results before April 13.
There was no indication when the high court would rule.
Wisconsin stands apart from other states in trying to hold to its April election date, even as Evers issued a statewide stay-at-home order that Wisconsin’s chief medical officer has credited for helping slow the rate of infections.
Evers has said he can’t move or change the election on his own. He called a special session for Saturday afternoon, asking Republicans to take up bills that would convert the election to all-mail and give voters until May 26 to return ballots. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, said they wouldn’t do it, and Saturday’s session was gaveled in and out in seconds.
Other states have delayed their primaries to protect voters and poll workers from the virus. Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii and Louisiana were set to hold elections Saturday, but they’ve pushed those contests back. Louisiana’s presidential primary is now set for June 20. Democrats in Alaska and Wyoming have decided to hold their party-run contests by mail only and have pushed back the deadline for turning in ballots.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.