Empower Wisconsin | March 26, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Wisconsin’s spring elections will go on as scheduled with in-person voting, Republican Legislative leaders assert.
Despite Gov. Tony Evers extraordinary — arguably extra-constitutional — powers in the pandemic crisis, the Legislature has the authority to decide questions of election law.
“… (W)e live in a republic and we live in one that has to have an election,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said Wednesday afternoon during a teleconference call with the press. He was joined by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau).
The Republican leaders, in this case, mostly agree with Democrat Evers, who, too, has said the elections must go on as scheduled. But Evers this week said he was weighing whether to conduct the election by mail-in absentee ballots, a move Republicans do not support and something Evers cannot do unilaterally, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council.
The April 7 election includes the Democratic presidential primary, a state Supreme Court contest and various local races.
On Tuesday, the city of Green Bay filed a lawsuit seeking to move the April 7 election and make it strictly vote-by-mail. The city asserts holding the election as planned will put voters at risk of contracting the virus. The suit asks a judge to extend the deadline for voter registration to May 1, and give election officials until June 2 to count the ballots.
Vos and Fitzgerald said doing so would illegally delay duly elected local officials from taking their rightful seats on time and taking care of the people’s pressing business.
Fitzgerald said it’s too late to turn back now, noting that local elections officials have mailed out more than a half million ballots, with north of 100,000 of those already returned. Still, there will remain a good portion of the voting population that doesn’t want to vote via mail, and it is their right under election law to vote in-person on election day.
“I understand things are getting much different out there,” the majority leader said. “Obviously, there are a lot of concerns about what that would look like on April 7 … but right now I don’t see a change in the April 7 date.”
And an all vote-by-mail election won’t happen without the Legislature changing the laws. Republican leadership is clearly not interested in making those changes.
State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), a member of the Assembly’s Committee on Campaigns and Elections, said there are myriad ways in which voting officials can keep voters and poll workers safe. Some communities are conducting drive-though voting to reduce possible coronavirus contact. Some election officials have proposed handing out fresh pens to each voter, while others are moving voting sites to public places that provide adequate space between voters and poll workers.
“The moment you limit people the ability to vote on election day, it puts in question, I think, the entire election,” Brandtjen said.
Some clerks, however, have reported a shortage of poll workers, positions often filled by elderly retirees who are more vulnerable to the virus.
Vos said elections officials will find ways to carry out the spring elections in a safe and lawful way. He disagrees with those calling to delay the critical exercise of a free people.
“For those who don’t want to go through with the elections, that happens in juntas,” the speaker said.
Liberal activists appear to be using the health crisis to ram through their long-sought reforms to Wisconsin election law, including getting rid of voter ID. They have filed federal lawsuits once again to erode election integrity statutes.
It sounds like Republican leadership isn’t about to give up those protections, even in these uncertain times.