Evers wants all vote-by-mail election, gets GOP rebuff

    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 06: Instructions directs voters at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, United States. Voters in Minnesota will be deciding the representatives who control the Senate, House, and governors' seats. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 06: Instructions directs voters at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design on November 6, 2018. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

    Gov. Tony Evers called on state lawmakers Friday to pass legislation authorizing absentee ballots to be sent to all voters in the state and converting the April 7 election of state and local offices and the Democratic presidential primary to an all-mail election — but got a swift thumbs down from the top Republican in the state Senate.

    The proposed changes are in response to the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, the upper respiratory illness that has spread worldwide, leading to 842 confirmed infections in Wisconsin as of Friday afternoon, including 13 deaths, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

    Since declaring a health emergency on March 12, the governor has directed a number of follow-up orders, including closing schools, implementing the state’s price-gouging law and, starting Wednesday, March 25, requiring all state residents to remain “Safer at Home” during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

    But Evers chose not to unilaterally order a mail-in ballot election. “We believe that the Legislature is the best place for that to happen,” Evers said in an afternoon media briefing. “Most of this is state law.” Legislation, he added, would include provisions to ensure local election clerks had the needed resources to carry it out.

    Passing a law would also avoid tying the matter up in the courts, said Ryan Nilsestuen,  chief legal counsel in the governor’s office. “There’s already four pending lawsuits that are being argued currently right now in federal court. Issuing an order today would probably result in a fifth lawsuit,” Nilsestuen said. By swiftly enacting legislation to make the change, “it’s a way that we can avoid further litigation and uncertainty.”

    Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald promptly rejected Evers’ request, issuing the following statement on Friday afternoon:

    “Governor Evers just proposed procuring, printing, verifying, and mandating the mailing of millions of ballots within 10 days. Even he knows that’s not logistically feasible. The clerks of this state should know this is a complete fantasy. The Legislature on both sides of the aisle has to know this is ridiculous. In pitching this idea, the governor is lying directly to Wisconsinites about this even being remotely possible. Acting like this is doable is a hoax.

    “Record numbers of absentee ballots have already been sent out. All registered Wisconsin voters can easily request an absentee ballot from their clerk or online at myvote.wi.gov.”

    Meanwhile, late Friday afternoon, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO endorsed Evers’ position. “Our democracy only works when every voter can freely and safely cast their vote,” said the labor federation’s president, Stephanie Bloomingdale, in a statement. “In this unusual election, Wisconsin voters, local election officials, and our state lawmakers need to work together to ensure every single voter can safely participate in our democracy.”

    Also Friday, Evers directed DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to issue an order suspending evictions and foreclosures for 60 days. The order specifies that the only exception is if not carrying out an eviction “will result in an imminent threat of serious physical harm to another person.”

    The order states that it “does not in any way relieve a person’s obligation to pay their rent or mortgages.”

    As of Friday afternoon, the state has confirmed COVID-19 infections in 842 people, 13 of whom have died, said Palm. 

    Palm said that without the Safer at Home order in place, models had predicted that up to 22,000 people in Wisconsin could be infected by April 8. However, results from the enforced isolation are likely not to be visible for several weeks, she said, and current deaths reflect people who were infected before the Safer at Home order was issued.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.