(WFRV) – Tuesday’s Wisconsin Spring Primary was unprecedented. It involved lawsuits, federal court orders, the National Guard, a record number of absentee ballot requests – some of which that never made it to voters – reduced polling locations, an eleventh-hour Executive Order, and an eleventh-and-a-half-hour ruling from the state Supreme Court. And, technically speaking, the election isn’t over – results are not being released until Monday, April 13, to allow clerks the chance to count all of the absentee ballots.
In early March, after Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order #72 proclaiming a public health emergency in response to the coronavirus, the Wisconsin Elections Commission announced absentee ballots would be mailed directly to residents in nursing homes and care facilities. WEC also announced it was giving municipal clerks the flexibility to relocate polling locations that were to be in nursing homes and other facilities where public health may be a concern.
As the coronavirus continued to spread through Wisconsin – infecting 155 people by March 19 – Mayors Tim Hanna of Appleton, Eric Genrich from Green Bay, and Dean Kaufert from Neenah came together for a teleconference to explain that they were hoping for alternative voting methods for the April 7 election. Their main focus was asking Gov. Evers and the Legislature to push the due date for ballot results back a few days to allow clerks to work through the large number of absentee ballots submitted and expected to be submitted.
A few days later, the City of Green Bay filed a federal lawsuit seeking to cancel in-person voting and give the city until June 2 to count absentee ballots, according to the Associated Press. On March 26, Washington County announced they would proceed to intervene in the lawsuit.
On March 27, Gov. Evers announced he was calling on the Wisconsin Legislature to send an absentee ballot to every registered voter ahead of the election, saying “My focus has been and will continue to be ensuring everyone has the opportunity to cast their ballot in the upcoming election.”
Gov. Evers added that the Legislature should “come together to take bipartisan action to ensure that every registered voter receives an absentee ballot to vote in the upcoming election to allow ballots to be postmarked the day of the election, and to extend the time period to give our clerks extra time to count the influx of ballots.”
Just a week before the election, WEC released a report showing over 100 municipalities were experiencing critical shortages in which there are no poll workers available to maintain just one polling place. By then, Wisconsin had more than 1,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus.
On April 1, Gov. Evers deployed the National Guard to help staff polling sites for the election in order to combat the poll worker shortage. By election day, numerous municipalities in the area had announced consolidated or relocated polling places, including Green Bay cutting their locations down to just two places.
On April 2, U.S. District Judge William Conley declined to postpone Wisconsin’s presidential primary but ordered that people be given an extra six days beyond Tuesday’s election for absentee voting.
Judge Conley highlighted state leaders’ decision not to delay the election to protect people’s health but refused to postpone it himself, saying a federal judge shouldn’t act as the state’s health officer.
“As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards. Nor is it appropriate for a federal district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them,” Conley wrote.
The next day, Judge Conley ordered Wisconsin officials to withhold reporting any results from the election until Monday, April 13 – the date Judge Conley set as the completion of absentee balloting. By then, more than 1 million Wisconsin voters had requested absentee ballots.
On Friday, April 3, Gov. Evers signed Executive Order #73, calling on the state Legislature to meet during a Special Session the next day to take up changes to Tuesday’s election. Gov. Evers said he was urging the Legislature to take up legislation allowing an all-mail election, to send ballots to every registered voter who has not already requested one by May 19, and to extend the time for those ballots to be received to May 26.
After a brief Special Session on Saturday, April 4, Wisconsin Republicans asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block extended absentee voting in Tuesday’s primary. That same day, confirmed cases of coronavirus exceeded 2,000 in Wisconsin.
On Sunday, Democrats and liberal groups in Wisconsin urged the U.S. Supreme Court to let the ruling that extended absentee voting in Tuesday’s election stand.
At around 11 a.m. Monday, April 6, it was announced that Wisconsin would move forward with plans to hold in-person voting for the next day’s election.
Less than two hours later, Gov. Evers signed an Executive Order suspending all in-person voting for the April 7 spring election and rescheduling it for June 9. During a media briefing three days prior, Gov. Evers stated it would be illegal for him to pursue an Executive Order like this, adding that the decision laid in the hands of the Legislature.
Shortly after 4:30 Monday night, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that Gov. Evers lacked the authority to move the election on his own. As a result, in-person voting was back on for Tuesday’s election. A previous ruling prohibiting the release of election results until April 13 remained in effect.
Later that night, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the extension of absentee voting in Wisconsin primary. This ruling meant all absentee ballots needed to be postmarked April 7 or returned to election clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
One day before the election, Wisconsin exceeded 2,400 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state, including 77 deaths.
On Election Day, voters were greeted with an entirely different voting experience than they’d ever seen before.
In her last election before a previously announced retirement, Menasha City Clerk Deborah Galeazzi told WFRV Local 5 that this Election Day was a strange one.
“I always say to the poll workers, ‘Each election is different.’ But this one is far, far more different. We’ve never had this chaos if you want to call it that,” Galeazzi told WFRV Local 5.
Some municipalities were offering curbside voting, like Oshkosh and all of Brown County’s polling places. Others were cut down to only one or two polling places, like Neenah, which moved all of its voters to a polling place in the old Shopko building.
Appleton kept all 15 of its polling places open, keeping its voters from experiencing the long lines Green Bay voters were greeted with. WFRV Local 5’s own Chad Roethlisberger waited in line for almost three hours at Green Bay East High School.
Early Wednesday morning, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich released a statement on Facebook, saying, “Yesterday’s election was an incredibly difficult one for those who voted in-person and for those who administered it. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for bearing a heavy burden during a frightening and dangerous time. The several hour wait times we witnessed were devastating to watch and much more difficult to experience, I’m sure.”
Mayor Genrich went on to explain that the decision to only use two polling locations for Green Bay “was not an option we chose eagerly.”
“In fact, it was our last resort. Our contingency plan, once first realizing a significant decline in available poll workers, involved the use of our four high school gyms. That number fell to two locations as the number of experienced and trained poll workers fell further. We had the option of bringing inexperienced individuals into the process, but our city clerk and I did not feel comfortable implicating untrained city employees, members of the public, or members of the National Guard in a dangerous and stressful environment.”
To read Mayor Genrich’s full statement, click here.
James Fitzgerald, Chairman of the Brown County Republican Party, released a statement following Tuesday’s election, saying:
“I reached out to Mayor Genrich on March 30, imploring him to apply all the necessary resources to run a smooth election on April 7, and heard nothing. Today, we see the results of his inaction. While other large municipalities, including Madison, had no difficulties processing the vote today, Green Bay, fell short leaving long lines and frustrated voters. Mayor Genrich’s refusal to use trained National Guard’s men and women exhibited a classic failure in judgment and leadership. We applaud all the resilient poll workers who persevered the integrity of the ballot box.”
Wisconsin’s top elections official Meagan Wolfe Wednesday that the elections commission was working with the U.S. Postal Service to locate absentee ballots that never made it to voters in time for Tuesday’s deadline, including three bins in the Oshkosh and Appleton area.
Now, Wisconsinites must wait until April 13 to find out the results of Tuesday’s election, which featured the Democratic presidential primary – which has a lesser impact as Senator Bernie Sanders announced the end of his presidential campaign Wednesday morning -, a state Supreme Court seat, and numerous local positions and referendums.