The Wisconsin Elections Commission is undecided about whether or not next week’s presidential primary should take place as scheduled.
Earlier today, the Commission failed to pass a proposal from Commissioner Chair Dean Knudson that would have had the Commission tell a federal court it doesn’t think the election should be moved.
Three Commissioners appointed by Republicans voted in favor of the proposal, while the three Democrat-appointed Commissioners were opposed.
Yesterday, the City of Madison filed a brief in federal court asking the court to postpone next week’s election for at least three weeks, and consider ordering a full mail-in ballot election.
Specialists at UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab, including social epidemiologist Malia Jones, support the City in the brief in part because they don’t know enough about the extent to which COVID-19 has spread within the state.
“There are a lot of unknowns still in this situation of COVID-19’s spread within the state of Wisconsin,” Jones says. “I think in light of those unknowns and the risk that we could still be having considerable community spread of the disease in any kind of a group context, it’s really not a good idea to ask people to go and vote in person in an election on April 7th.”
Jones also says that having the election in-person could threaten not only public health, but also the democratic process.
“Some people won’t vote. They’ll choose not to case a vote because they don’t want to expose themselves. Some people will, and they will expose themselves to COVID-19 and it could produce an unnecessary spike in our cases. We would probably end up with both of those things happening and so both the public health and the election would be compromised, ” Jones adds.
If the election does take place as planned, Democratic-appointed commissioners, like Ann Jacobs, are concerned that polling places won’t be able to open at all.
“My concern is we are pretending with our fingers crossed and with unicorn wishes that we’re going to be able to cobble together a way to administer this election,” Jacobs says. “We’re going to have to answer to voters in these communities when the clerk goes with their key at 6:30 in the morning to open up the polling site and there are no polling workers. To tell the judge that we absolutely have to go forward is unnecessary.”
According to the Commission, nearly 30,000 voters are still waiting to receive a mail ballot, and over 600,000 more have yet to return their ballot. If absentee ballots aren’t returned by 8 p.m. on April 7th, they won’t be counted.
Commissioner Mark Thomsen says that by not extending the deadline for clerks to count these ballots, the election’s integrity would be at risk.
“To do that without modifying the schedule to count them is intentionally disenfranchising people. That’s not running a fair election,” Thomsen says.
According to a survey conducted by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 111 municipalities statewide are too-short handed to offer in-person voting at even one polling location, while another 126 municipalities won’t be able to staff all of their polling sites.
According to Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, more than 1,000 volunteer poll workers and nearly 30 polling locations in the city have cancelled their appointments to date.
In the same press release, Rhodes-Conway says that, at this point, the City’s only solution is to combine multiple wards into a single location. But, that would result in larger gatherings and present additional challenges to social distancing, which Jones says could disrupt efforts to slow the virus’ spread.
“It takes a while before we see any effect of social distancing working [because] there’s some lag time. The safer-at-home took effect a week ago today and we’re unlikely to see how well that’s working in terms of real data for probably another week. That’s basically the date of the election,” Jones says. “I think it would be really unwise to encourage people to go out into this high-contact, group setting before we really know if we’ve been able to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.”
According to Rhodes-Conway, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation moving forward with an election at this stage of the pandemic.
Fourteen states and one territory that have not held their presidential primaries have all either postponed their elections or switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines.