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WI to Hold Tuesday Primary Amid Public Health Concerns

The debate over whether Wisconsin should hold an in-person primary during a pandemic is prompting more calls for universal voting by mail. (Adobe Stock)
The debate over whether Wisconsin should hold an in-person primary during a pandemic is prompting more calls for universal voting by mail. (Adobe Stock)
April 7, 2020

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin still will hold its presidential primary today, despite late action by the governor to try to postpone it. Voting rights activists say the state should have never reached this point.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court sided with Republican leaders in the state Legislature to strike down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' decision to postpone the election until June. Voters' rights groups have said the health and safety of voters was placed on the back burner by elected officials during the ordeal.

Executive director of Wisconsin Voices Dana Schultz said their actions will have a lasting effect.

"That will have ramifications for how people think about our democracy for years and probably decades to come," Schultz said.

She said it's especially true for African-American voters, who feel pressure to head to to the polls because they face more barriers to cast a ballot in states such as Wisconsin.

The Democratic governor initially agreed to hold the election, but changed course out of safety concerns. GOP lawmakers said there was plenty of warning about the pandemic and voters who were worried about safety should already have taken steps to cast their ballot by mail.

Matt Barreto, co-founder of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, said Wisconsin's situation underscores the need to implement universal vote-by-mail during the pandemic.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, this is a health issue," Barreto said. "And there is no justifiable reason to continue to promote in-person voting."

Barreto dismissed concerns from Republicans that accepting all ballots by mail would lead to fraud. He said states have plenty of safeguards and pointed to successful mail-in ballot elections in Utah, a largely conservative state where election officials say 90% of residents cast their ballots by mail.

Schultz said in addition to alienating people of color, younger voters may too be turned off by the way the this process has played out.

"So what I'm very nervous about is someone who's 18, 19, 20 years old, who was planning on registering and voting for the first time in the presidential primary, and this is the kind of mess that they're walking into," she said.

Political observers have said the outcome of a state Supreme Court race is likely one dominant motivation for the GOP opposing the postponement. They say a legal fight to remove several hundred thousand voters from the rolls is tied to the importance of that race.

Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - WI