Gov. Evers asks lawmakers to modify election statutes

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers sits for an interview with The Associated Press Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers asked Republican legislative leaders on Friday to convene quickly to change state law and allow clerks to send absentee ballots to all registered voters and give them more time to count them.

The governor, who is facing mounting pressure to postpone or adjust Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary due to the coronavirus crisis, made his request in a tweet. He didn’t specify how a mass mailing would work or how much additional time clerks should be given to count ballots, but he said the Legislature needs to act “swiftly.”

“We need to be doing everything we can to ensure that folks have that opportunity (to vote) while still staying safer at home,” Evers said.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn’t immediately respond to emails asking if the leaders would comply, but the odds seemed slim. There’s little time to change anything with the the election scheduled to take place in less than two weeks, and Fitzgerald and Vos said earlier this week that they believe it should continue as planned.

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said that the governor is prepared to order the Legislature to convene in special session, but he wants to see if he can reach consensus with Fitzgerald and Vos before taking that route.

In addition to Wisconsin’s presidential primary, the election will decide a state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races.

Several states have postponed their primaries because of the virus threat. Liberal-leaning groups have been pressing Evers to delay Wisconsin’s election, but he hasn’t taken action. He has said any delay could leave hundreds of local offices vacant, as most local terms expire in mid-April. Furthermore, the Legislature’s attorneys determined that Evers can’t do anything because they say election procedures are part of state law and the governor lacks the power to change statutes unilaterally, even during states of emergency.

Voting rights groups and labor unions have filed a series of federal lawsuits over the last week demanding that judges take various steps, ranging from outlawing in-person voting to lifting photo ID requirements to obtain absentee ballots.

A coalition of voting rights groups and labor unions filed the latest suit late Thursday. The coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters, Souls to the Polls, the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, want a judge delay in-person voting at least until a stay-at-home order Evers issued this week expires April 24.

Fitzgerald and Vos on Friday took Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson to task for advising voters who want absentee ballots but say they can’t upload an image of a photo ID to mark themselves as indefinitely confined, which would exempt them from the requirement. The clerks, both Democrats, are telling people that Evers’ stay-at-home order means everyone is indefinitely confined.
Democrats have long opposed Republican-authored voter ID requirements, viewing them as a way the GOP tries to suppress voter turnout, particularly among demographics that tend to vote Democrat. Republicans say photo IDs help curb voter fraud, although they have never shown any widespread voter malfeasance in the state.

Fitzgerald asked the Legislative Reference Bureau, which drafts bills and provides legal advice to lawmakers, to analyze the clerks’ advice. The bureau provided Fitzgerald a memo on Thursday that concludes the stay-at-home order contains so many exemptions that everyone is not indefinitely confined as the clerks contend. Fitzgerald and Vos issued a joint statement accusing McDonell and Christenson of using the virus to advance a liberal agenda.

Christenson said he thinks the Legislative Reference Bureau is simply telling Fitzgerald and Vos what they want to hear and that Evers’ order clearly means people must stay in their homes.

McDonell didn’t immediately respond to an email.