WASHINGTON: The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday blocked a last-minute attempt by the governor of the midwestern US state to postpone the next day’s election because of the coronavirus epidemic and ruled that the vote should go ahead.
In a 4-2 decision, the top state court overturned an executive order from the Democratic governor, who had sought to delay the election until June citing the threat to poll workers and voters from the virus.
“I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing,” Governor Tony Evers said in issuing the order delaying in-person voting until June 9.
Republican leaders of the state Senate and State Assembly filed a legal challenge to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the governor could not unilaterally change the date of the election.
The four conservative justices on the court voted to override the governor’s order, while the two liberal justices voted to uphold it.
Fifteen US states and one territory have already delayed their presidential primaries because of Covid-19, but Wisconsin was going ahead despite health concerns.
Former vice-president Joe Biden is favoured over Vermont senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary being held in Wisconsin to select a Democratic opponent to face President Donald Trump in November.
Sanders, 78, had called for the Wisconsin primary to be delayed, while Biden, 77, the overall frontrunner in the Democratic contest, said it was up to local officials to decide.
The state Supreme Court ruling set the stage for a potentially chaotic election on Tuesday amid a shortage of polling stations and poll workers and voters who may be reluctant to leave their homes to cast ballots in person.
There was no immediate reaction from the governor’s office but Ben Wikler, chairman of the state Democratic Party, condemned the court ruling.
Wikler said the party would not be mobilising Democratic voters and called on the Republican Party to do the same.
‘Keep people safe’
Evers, the governor, moved to delay the election through executive order after the Republican-majority state Senate and State Assembly ignored his repeated appeals for a postponement.
“The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe,” he said.
“No Wisconsinite should ever have to choose between exercising their constitutional right to vote and being safe, secure, and healthy.”
Wisconsin, like dozens of other US states, is under a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has caused more than 10,000 deaths in the United States.
Two members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission said in an open letter that it was a mistake to proceed with the election “in the face of a deepening and escalating Covid-19 crisis.”
“Forcing an in-person election on Tuesday not only threatens the voters, the clerks and election staff, it threatens everyone those people subsequently come into contact with at home and elsewhere,” commissioners Ann Jacobs and Mark Thomsen wrote.
“A single asymptomatic virus-carrying poll worker could transmit the virus to hundreds of people on election day, creating a disease vector that would devastate a community,” they said.
The election commissioners said there would be severe staffing shortages at polling stations, and 111 municipalities did not have enough poll workers to open a single polling site.
They said others have had to be consolidated, risking the sort of crowding that health experts have warned can contribute to the spread of the virus.
For example, Milwaukee – the biggest city in the state – usually has 180 polling places, they said, but would have only five on Tuesday.
They also condemned a plan to bring in members of the National Guard to work at polling stations.
Besides the presidential primary, Wisconsin residents will also be voting for mayors, judges, county executives and other local officials.
Milwaukee is to be the site of the Democratic National Convention where the party nominee will be crowned.
The Democratic National Committee announced last week that the convention was being delayed from July to Aug 17 because of coronavirus.
According to the Wisconsin health department, 2,440 people have tested positive for the virus in the state, and there have been 77 deaths.