Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) on Monday signed an executive order postponing Tuesday's election until June 9 due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, a move that was later blocked by the state Supreme Court.
Evers said in a statement that he could not "in good conscience stand by and do nothing" as the state braced for a crush of voters at the polls despite warnings from public health officials that people should not gather together in public spaces.
Evers ordered the in-person voting date pushed back until June 9, and said that all mail and absentee ballots sent up until then will be counted.
The governor directed the Wisconsin state legislature to convene a special session on Tuesday to address the fallout from his executive order, which could result in temporary vacancies in municipal seats across the state.
"Frankly, there’s no good answer to this problem — I wish it were easy," Evers said. "I have been asking everyone to do their part to help keep our families, our neighbors, and our communities safe, and I had hoped that the Legislature would do its part — just as the rest of us are — to help keep people healthy and safe."
"The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order today," he added.
Wisconsin Republicans immediately challenged Evers’s ruling in court, and the state Supreme Court later overturned Evers’s emergency order in a 4-2 ruling.
Evers had previously said that he didn’t have the power to change the election without violating state law.
“The governor’s executive order is clearly constitutional overreach,” state House Speaker Robin Vos (R) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said in a joint statement earlier.
“This is another last-minute flip-flop from the governor," the statement noted. "The governor himself has repeatedly acknowledged he can’t move the election. Just last week a federal judge said he didn’t have the power to cancel the election and Gov. Evers can’t either.”
There was mounting pressure on Wisconsin to postpone its election in recent days as worries about the spread of the coronavirus grew and the state faced polling closures and severe worker shortages.
On Friday, Evers called for a special legislative session to cancel in-person voting so the election could be held entirely by mail.
However, Republicans leading the Wisconsin legislature did not take up Evers’s proposal to cancel in-person voting, instead gaveling out of the special Saturday session after only a few minutes.
The ruling by the state court was followed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Monday night ruled that Wisconsin cannot accept absentee ballots postmarked after its voting day Tuesday.
A federal judge had extended the absentee voting deadline by a week to allow for the high demand for absentee ballots. Wisconsin Republicans challenged that ruling, arguing that only ballots that are received by Tuesday should be counted.
In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the conservative justices in the Supreme Court sided with Republican state lawmakers by halting the lower court order to extend absentee voting to April 13, a measure that would have expanded options for avoiding in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Many were bracing for an administrative disaster at the polls on Tuesday.
In Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin with a population of nearly 600,000, only between six and 12 polling stations would have been open for in-person voting, compared to 180 during the 2016 election.
Officials were worried that the polling place crunch will lead to longer lines and bigger crowds, potentially making the centers hotbeds for the spread of disease.
The polling places that would have been open were facing severe worker shortages, leading Evers to say he would call up the Wisconsin National Guard to fill the gaps.
Now, Wisconsin becomes the 16th state to delay its primary due to the coronavirus.
The elections that had been scheduled for this week included the Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Clyburn predicts Supreme Court contender J. Michelle Childs would get GOP votes Overnight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money — No SALT, and maybe no deal Menendez goes after Sanders over SALT comments It's time for the Senate to vote: Americans have a right to know where their senators stand MORE (I-Vt.).
Sanders had called to postpone the election but Biden advocated continuing on.
Polls show Biden with a massive lead over Sanders in Wisconsin.
The latest Marquette University survey of Wisconsin found Biden with a 62 percent to 34 percent lead over Sanders. Only six weeks ago, Sanders led Biden by double-digits, a reminder of how swiftly and decisively Democrats shifted their support behind the likely nominee.
Another blowout victory for Biden on Tuesday would have moved him closer to the nomination and potentially have moved Sanders closer to leaving the race.
Neither candidate has been advertising or visiting the state. The primary race has effectively ground to a halt with the candidates marooned at home or in Washington.
Wisconsin also had a full slate of general elections on tap for Tuesday, including one for a hotly contested state Supreme Court seat.
It’s unclear how the legislature will decide to handle seats that are due to be vacated until the June election.
-- Updated at 8:56 p.m.