Presidential primary in Wisconsin proceeds despite lockdown
Wisconsin pushed ahead with its primary elections on Tuesday despite public health concerns about the coronavirus, in elections that are likely to set the stage for a bitter partisan battle over voting rules ahead of November’s election.
More than a dozen states have postponed elections, including presidential primaries, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus in recent weeks.
But voters in Wisconsin — which, like many US states, has issued a “stay at home” order restricting non-essential travel — headed to the polls on Tuesday for the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries along with a slew of down-ballot contests, despite a last-minute intervention by the state’s Democratic governor to try to delay the vote.
On Monday, Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s governor, had ordered the vote to be postponed until June 9, after the state’s Republican-controlled legislature rejected his calls to delay the election in a special session at the weekend.
“The bottom line is the people of Wisconsin, they don’t care about fighting between Democrats and Republicans, they’re scared,” the governor told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a local newspaper.
The state’s Republicans filed a legal challenge to the order, and Wisconsin’s Supreme Court swiftly overruled Mr Evers and said in-person voting should proceed as scheduled.
The deadline for postal voting in Wisconsin had been extended earlier this month following a separate legal challenge. Yet in a decision late Monday, the US Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision, with the court’s five conservative justices siding with Republicans and the four liberal justices dissenting.
“The court’s decision on the narrow question before the court should not be viewed as expressing an opinion on the broader question of whether to hold the election, or whether other reforms or modifications in election procedures in light of Covid-19 are appropriate,” the majority opinion said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in dissent that she feared the decision would “result in massive disenfranchisement”.
“The majority of this court declares that this case presents a ‘narrow, technical question,’” she wrote. “That is wrong. The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic.”
The dispute in Wisconsin foreshadows what could be a fiercely partisan debate over how to conduct the US presidential election in November, especially if Americans are still under “stay at home” orders and other social distancing measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.
US President Donald Trump said last week that he was against the use of postal voting, telling reporters “a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting”.
Ryan Thomas, a spokesperson for Stand Up America, a progressive advocacy group, said Mr Trump would “rather force people to put themselves at risk in order to exercise their right vote than ensure that every eligible American can safely cast their ballot this fall”.
“If Republican lawmakers care at all about protecting our democracy during this crisis, they should work with congressional Democrats to immediately provide states with at least $2bn so that election officials can effectively implement vote-by-mail, online registration, and expanded early voting,” he added.
The $2.2tn economic relief package passed by Congress last month included $400m in “election security grants”, which states can use to expand early and mail-in voting. Democrats including Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota and former presidential candidate, and Ron Wyden, the senator from Oregon, have pushed for more funding and other election reforms to “guarantee safe and secure elections”, despite opposition from their Republican counterparts.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who is challenging former vice-president Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, has slammed Republicans for their handling of the Wisconsin elections.
“It’s outrageous that the Republican legislative leaders and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin are willing to risk the health and safety of many thousands of Wisconsin voters tomorrow for their own political gain,” Mr Sanders said in a statement late Monday.
“Let me be clear: holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is dangerous, disregards the guidance of public health experts and may very well prove deadly,” he added.
Mr Sanders has faced mounting calls in recent days to drop out and cede the nomination to Mr Biden, who has secured a near-insurmountable lead in terms of delegates.
The Democratic National Committee last week postponed its nominating convention from July to August because of coronavirus concerns. Mr Biden said at the weekend that the convention may have to be “virtual” rather than in person.