Special session on April 7 election adjourned until Monday

Madison Wisconsin - Capitol Building
Madison Wisconsin - Capitol Building(WEAU)
Published: Apr. 4, 2020 at 1:55 PM CDT
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Gov. Tony Evers called a special session for Saturday and asked Republicans to make several changes to the spring election, but Republicans rejected the changes and immediately adjourned upon meeting.

It took less than a minute for Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) to adjourn the session until Monday, April 6th. Just a few lawmakers attended the special session.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans say they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block extended absentee voting in Tuesday’s primary, despite public health fears about in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin stands apart from other states in trying to hold to its April election date even though Gov. Tony Evers has issued a statewide stay-at-home order. It also comes as Wisconsin’s chief medical officer has credited the order for helping slow the rate of infections in the state.

The Democratic governor initially joined Republican leaders in seeking to hold the primary as planned on Tuesday, but he now favors an all-mail election with absentee voting well into May. Republicans maintain that Tuesday’s in-person voting should go on as planned.

In calling for a special session, Evers asked lawmakers to allow an all-mail election and extend the deadline for absentee ballots to May 26. Democrats at the Capitol on Saturday supported the changes.

"I was here to try and postpone the election and aid Governor Evers in postponing it," said State Senator Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee). Carpenter added that he was worried about his constituents' safety if they go to the polls.

The election features the Democratic presidential primary between former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, but a bigger concern for Republicans is a high-stakes state Supreme Court race featuring a conservative-leaning incumbent against a liberal-leaning challenger.

Liberal groups have taken the matter to the courts, and a federal judge declined to postpone in-person voting while extending absentee voting until April 13. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Friday rejected Republicans’ appeal of that decisions.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, said in a statement late Friday announcing their Supreme Court appeal that they “still have grave concerns about election security” by allowing votes to be submitted beyond Election Day.

Evers has said he can’t move or change the election on his own. He called a special session for Saturday afternoon, asking Republicans to take up bills that would convert the election to all-mail and give voters until May 26 to return ballots. Vos and Fitzgerald said they wouldn’t do it.

Local races are also on Tuesday’s ballot, and both Republicans and Evers cited the need to fill those offices as one reason to keep the election on track. They also said there was no guarantee the virus crisis would fade if the election was pushed back by weeks or months.

"Having this election is essential to make sure that we have people in key positions in government," said State Senator Roger Roth (R-Appleton).

Senate Democrats said Saturday that keeping the election on Tuesday would be a serious health risk.

"Somebody in the state's going to get sick. Somebody in the state's going to get COVID-19, probably a lot of people," said State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point).

A key race on the ballot is for a seat on the bitterly partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-2 advantage. Incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly, a conservative-leaning judge, faces a challenge from Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky, a liberal-leaning judge, for a 10-year term.

Fears over in-person voting and a curtailed absentee period may hit Democratic-leaning Milwaukee hardest. City officials there have said they have so few poll workers available that they can operate only five polling sites, creating the prospect of many voters funneled to just a few locations.

Republican lawmakers said election workers are just like other essential employees.

"Our election officials and our poll workers, we're not asking any more from them than we're asking from all these other folks," Roth said.

For Democratic lawmakers, they hope to find middle ground before Tuesday's election.

"The fact that we didn't just adjourn the session today I think is a good thing, and it leaves a door open to try and figure out where we can go," Erpenbach said.

However Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke's (R-Kaukauna) office told NBC15 the Assembly is not expected to take any action on Monday. State Representative Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) said local polling places were taking precautions and her constituents should feel safe going to the polls.

Other states have delayed their primaries to protect voters and poll workers from the virus. Alaska, Wyoming, Hawaii and Louisiana were set to hold elections Saturday, but they’ve pushed those contests back. Louisiana’s presidential primary is now set for June 20. Democrats in Alaska and Wyoming have decided to hold their party-run contests by mail only and have pushed back the deadline for turning in ballots.