Wisconsin official: Spring election faces many problems

Wisconsin could face a litany of problems if it holds its spring election as scheduled despite the coronavirus crisis, including a possible disruption in mail service interfering with absentee voting, a lack of polling sites and the risk of exposing elderly poll workers and voters to the disease, the state’s chief elections officer said in a memo released Wednesday.

The election is scheduled for April 7. It features the state’s presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race, a referendum on a state constitutional amendment that would establish rights for crime victims and various local election.

Social distancing mandates, though, have raised questions about whether Wisconsin should postpone its election, as Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio have already done. Three states went ahead with their primaries on Tuesday, and some problems popped up, including in Chicago, where officials had to scramble to replace about 50 area polling sites that decided to cancel at the last minute.

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Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday banned gatherings of more than 10 people but said he wants the election to go on, saying democracy must continue and urging people to vote by absentee ballot. The Wisconsin Elections Commission scheduled an emergency meeting for late Wednesday afternoon to discuss the challenges that continuing with the election presents.

Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe released a memo to commissioners earlier Wednesday outlining the potential problems with holding the election as scheduled. It begins by noting that the commission can’t change the date unilaterally. Postponing the election would take a court order, an order from the governor or an act of the Legislature, which the Senate’s majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, has said is not going to happen.

The memo goes on to warn that a potential U.S. Postal Service shutdown could delay delivery and return of absentee ballots and therefore delay counting on election night. Wolfe said that local clerks might have to ask post offices to hold ballots and pick them up themselves.

A significant increase in absentee ballots also could delay counting on election night Wolfe said, noting that the deadline for returning them to local clerks is 8 p.m. on election night.

As of Tuesday, Wisconsin voters had cast about 173,775 absentee ballots for the election, according to the commission. That’s more absentee ballots cast than were requested in each of the previous three spring elections dating back to 2017, and there’s still three weeks to submit them.