After last minute, party-line decisions by the US and Wisconsin Supreme Courts, Wisconsin will hold their presidential primary and a hotly-contested Supreme Court election tomorrow (April 7th) despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The state's Democratic governor has been pushing to delay the election and/or extend the window for absentee ballot collection, but the Republican controlled legislature have opposed both moves.

In addition to the the potential for voters to get infected while voting, the vast majority of polling sites have been closed due to a lack of volunteers (most of whom are usually retirees) to run them:

The state has faced serious questions about its ability to run an election amid the pandemic. With poll workers quitting out of fears of contracting the virus, more than 100 municipalities have said they lack enough staff to run even one polling place.

Milwaukee typically has about 180 sites; this election the city plans to have five open. The head of the state elections commission raised the possibility in court testimony that some voters may have to head to a different town on Election Day because no one will be staffing the polls in their hometowns.

Wisconsin Is Set to Vote on Tuesday After Court Overrules Governor’s Postponement - The New York Times

Why is the state Republican party insisting on going forward with an election where most people will be unable to vote, even if they're willing to risk their lives and health to do so? Even if they don't consider the threat of COVID-19 to be significant, the closure of so many polling places guarantees that people will be denied the opportunity to vote.

  • No one can answer this question (except for the Republicans in question) without resorting to unfiltered speculation. Now while I don't personally mind a certain amount of reasoned speculation, I don't see anything reasonable to ground an opinion on here. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 4:41
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    @TedWrigley maybe they've debated this or given statements on this in public? Maybe they've been asked by journalists or others to which they've explained the reasoning?
    – JJJ
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 5:00
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    @JJforTransparencyandMonica: I thought about reading the legal arguments made in the court cases, or looking over the public comments made by representatives, but those are more likely to reveal justifications than motivations. From what I know about Wisconsin politics, I have a hard time believing they will express anything honest, and I simply don't have enough information to interpret their behavior analytically. I mean, my best off-the-cuff spec is that the Wis Gop is trying to F Democrats hard (because they have a history of that), but that's hardly proper analysis. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 5:23
  • @TedWrigley I think an appropriate answer to this question is speculative. If speculative answers are not permitted then perhaps I will withdraw my answer.
    – Viktor
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 12:03
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    They've debated this issue in the legislature and in court – surely Republicans didn't just say "No". They must have had arguments for why they oppose the delays, and it should be possible to quote those arguments and evaluate their merit based on objective factors
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 17:58

5 Answers 5


Rural voters aren't afraid to go to the polls to keep a conservative state supreme court justice in power.

The April 2020 ballot does include the U.S. presidential primary, but that will have little effect on state politics. After I first posted this answer, the New York Times echoed many of the points I make below, starting with:

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders are on the ballot in Wisconsin, but the main event is the State Supreme Court race between the conservative incumbent justice, Daniel Kelly, and a liberal challenger, Jill Karofsky.

Wisconsin has an elected state supreme court that currently has 5 conservatives and 2 liberals. One of the conservatives (Daniel Kelly) is up for election in April 2020, and the another conservative is up in the next election after that (Pat Rogensack, 2023). If liberals win both of those seats back, they would have a 4-3 majority and could undo the laws that keep the minority Republican party in power.

The election determined the size of the court's conservative majority. A win for Karofsky would have reduced the conservative majority to 4-3, meaning that the next regularly scheduled election in 2023 would decide control of the court. A Kelly win would have preserved the court's 5-2 conservative majority.


It's helpful to understand the political context:

  • For decades prior to 2010, Wisconsin was a moderate state. The legislature and governorship each frequently flipped between the Democratic and Republican parties. Since 1900, Wisconsin has equally chosen Republicans and Democrats for President.

  • Justices on the state supreme court are elected and technically nonpartisan. Nonetheless, their conservative versus liberal ideology are often clear. For decades prior to 2010, the state supreme court held a liberal majority.

  • It's worth mentioning that long ago, Wisconsin Republicans were leaders in open elections and progressive ideas. The Republican party started in Wisconsin, as an anti-slavery party (later to be re-started in Michigan). The word "progressive" was coined by Republican Robert La Follette. Wisconsin was the first or among the first states to adopt women's suffrage, open ballots, primary elections, recall elections, referenda, outlawing child labor, worker's compensation, and income taxes; all were progressive Republican measures. Prior to the Tea Party, the state was considered one of the most bipartisan and least corrupt states.

  • Led primarily by Tea Party candidates, in the fall 2010 election, Wisconsin Republicans won control of all three branches of government. This included the election of Scott Walker as governor, a one-seat majority in the state senate, a considerable margin in the state assembly, and a 4 to 3 majority in the state supreme court.

  • Republicans quickly enacted a series of laws that would lock in their party's control:

    • Using sophisticated computer models to draw election maps for the U.S. House, state senate, and state assembly to maximize Republican seats and to pack Democratic votes into few districts. The gerrymandering is so successful that in the 2018 elections, Republicans won 5 of 8 U.S. House seats with only 45.61% of votes, and 63 of 99 state assembly seats with only 44.75% of votes.
    • Adopting a voter-ID law. Minorities and the poor -- who tend to vote for Democrats -- are less likely to have the proper types of identification.
    • Purged 234,000 voters from voting rolls.
    • Requiring early voting to be performed only at the municipal clerk's office, and not multiple sites. Thus the 600,000 residents of Milwaukee (a Democratic stronghold) had only one site for early voting, the same as a town of 600 people would. This law was struck down by a federal judge in 2016.

      • A requirement that cities can have only one place for early voting. Critics have said large cities such as Milwaukee should be able to have multiple voting sites because not everyone can get downtown easily.
    • Limiting the days and hours for early and absentee voting.

    • Replacing the agency which oversees elections, from the Government Accountability Board composed of judges chosen by other judges, to the Wisconsin Election Commission chosen by politicians.
    • Moving the state supreme court elections from the fall (which have high Democratic turnout) to the spring (which have poor Democratic turnout). This has been particularly effective at increasing the conservative control of the court, from 3-4 in 2010 to 7-2 in 2020. Note how the election during the pandemic is a spring election, with a supreme court contest.
    • Holding special elections to fill vacancies on unusual dates -- when Republicans turn out -- instead of the usual fall and spring election dates when Democrats turn out.
    • After a series of failed recall elections for the governor and Republicans in the state senate, changes that made recalls more difficult (2015 Act 117).
    • A series of laws (most famously 2011 Act 10) to cripple the power and finances of labor unions, which are the primary backers of Democratic candidates.
    • In 2015, changing the Chief Justice position from the most senior justice (a liberal) to being chosen by a majority of the court (conservatives).
    • In 2015, stripping the powers of the Democratic secretary of state.
    • Increasing the powers of the Republican governor and attorney general. When Democrats won back these offices in 2018, the powers of those offices were reduced in a lame duck session.
  • The conservatives controlling the state supreme court have upheld most of the laws described above. This includes laws that affected the justices' own re-election. In particular, the decision specifically about whether to continue the election during the pandemic went along ideological lines.

  • Moderate Republicans were treated poorly by the dominant Tea Party faction. The previous Republican leaders of the legislature -- Dave Schultz in the assembly and Mike Ellis in the senate -- were pushed out of leadership by Tea Party leaders. Schultz would later testify in a gerrymandering case that Republicans were brought one-by-one to a law office, and were ordered to vote for the gerrymandered maps, else their own districts would be gerrymandered to make them lose. In the ensuing years, many moderate Republicans quit the party in disgust, and many moderate office-holders were voted out in primaries by Tea Party candidates. The loss of moderates had drained the support of the Republican party.

  • Since 2010, Democrats have been gaining ground. By number of voters statewide, the Republican party is actually a minority party in Wisconsin. Wisconsin's top Republican even admitted that they aren't the majority:

    After the Republican Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin Statehouse, said that “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority."

    However, the measures described above are so effective that the state supreme court and both houses of the state legislature still remain in Republican control.

  • Democrats swept every statewide office in 2018: U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer. They had more votes in the U.S. House, but because of gerrymandering, they won only 3 of 8 seats. They also had more votes in the state assembly and gained one seat, but again because of gerrymandering, they did not gain control.

  • As has happened nationwide, the Wisconsin Republican party has aligned with rural interests and and the Democratic party with urban interests. COVID-19 is likely to keep people in high-density (i.e. Democratic) districts at home. Like other rural places in the U.S., rural Wisconsinites believe that COVID-19 is a "big city" phenomenon and are likely to show up to the polls. Per the New York Times, about one of the least populous counties:

    Bruce Johnson, the Democratic chairman in Pepin County, along the state’s western border with Minnesota, said he pushed for absentee balloting but people were less concerned because they rarely wait in lines to vote.


    When the election went ahead on 7 April, access to easy in-person voting heavily depended on where voters were located. In smaller or more rural communities, which tend to be whiter and vote Republican, few issues were reported.

    It's therefore in the interest of Republicans to keep the election going during the pandemic.

  • Should liberals take back the state supreme court, they can overturn the system of laws which keeps the Republican party in power. They would then be at the mercy of the voters, who have been increasingly voting Democratic.

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    Although this answer contains lots of factual information, it would be improved substantially if it were presented without so much partisan bias. As an example, requiring voter identification probably reduces minority turnout, but it probably also reduces election fraud. In most cases this answer only presents the argument most favorable to democrats about the motivation for why something was done without presenting favorable arguments for the republicans of why something was done.
    – Itsme2003
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 16:19
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    @Itsme2003 Reality has a well known liberal bias... But seriously: What election fraud? In-person voter fraud barely exists (absentee voter fraud is more common, but absentee voting is more popular with Republicans). "Reducing election fraud" is the new "states rights" dogwhistle. As with other voter suppression tactics such as literacy tests, everyone knows why it's done. Republicans sometimes even say it out loud. Courts have shown that Republicans specifically targeted minorities with this.
    – tim
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 16:56
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    A neutral point of view doesn't mean finding the middle between what's most favorable to Democrats and Republicans, but presenting the facts. If those are unfavorable to a certain party, maybe that says more about them than this answer does about DrSheldons bias.
    – tim
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 16:57
  • @Itsme2003: The reason for voter ID (fraud versus racial bias) does not matter at all. No matter which you believe, having voter ID helps Republicans and hurts Democrats. As the answer states, voter ID is one of a series of laws that would lock in their party's control. The effects of those laws on election results are facts, not bias: a minority of voters are able to able to control a majority of seats, in multiple government bodies, in multiple elections.
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 17:19
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    @Itsme2003 Sometimes there aren't favorable arguments for why someone did something Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 17:29

Republicans prevented this change because at the core it is beneficial to their electoral prospects.

There are many layers to fully understanding this issue, but to address it in brief I think a few facts are sufficient. One, the proportion of Republican voters is larger in rural areas than urban areas, see here.

The dangers of COVID-19 are more pronounced in the current pandemic in the urban areas with high population densities. High density areas such as New York City and other urban areas have seen a large number of cases of the COVID-19 disease. See here for an explanation of why this may happen.

With this second fact it is reasonable to expect that populations in urban areas are less likely to turn out to vote. With the first fact this will benefit the Republican Party. This is likely to be something the Republican Party wishes to achieve because of a number of candidates on the ballot such as the Supreme Court seat on the ballot.

  • 11
    The OP already mentioned that Milwaukee will only have 5 polling stations instead of the normal 180 => this supports your argument that city dwellers will face difficulties, and may be worth mentioning. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 14:39

It is not just the presidential primary being held today, but also a number of elections to local government. The Wisconsin GOP argued that it is essential to ensure that the positions in local government are filled so that important decisions can be made at a local level during the coronavirus crisis.

They also note that a million voters requested absentee ballots, so voting can continue that way.

  • 38
    If you mention the 1 m who requested absentee ballots it is worth mentioning that 1/2 million have not yet received them.
    – Dave
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 15:38
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    and that the Supreme Court has ruled against extending the absentee ballot deadline to allow them to vote despite receiving the ballot late. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 17:02
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    FYI - Depending on how you define "local..." there are two state-wide issues - a Supreme Court seat (ten year term), final election, not a primary, and an amendment to the state Constitution. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 20:01

Let's look at the timeline

Evers proposed an all-mail-in election towards the end of March

Republicans objected, but they did have reasons

“Governor Evers just proposed procuring, printing, verifying and mandating the mailing of millions of ballots within 10 days,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “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.”

Gov. Evers continued to support the original election date until a few days ago

From Politico (dated April 2, 5 days ago)

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ refusal to push for a delay of his state’s Tuesday primary has infuriated fellow Democrats in the state, who are now openly accusing him of failing to prevent an impending train wreck.

As the nation hurtles toward 5,000 coronavirus deaths and governors across the country take extreme steps to keep people at home, Wisconsin is forging ahead with the election despite having its own stay-at-home order. The likely outcome is that Wisconsinites will wake up on election day being told to stay put at the same time they're greenlighted to head to crowded polling sites.

Evers said he lacked executive authority to change the date

At least Evers' spokeswoman said so

She dismissed the possibility of [Governor Evers] attempting to halt the election like [Ohio Governor] DeWine did. “It’s not going to happen," Baldauff said. "He doesn’t want to do it and he also doesn’t have the authority to do it.”

Evers calls a special session

Evers proposal

Gov. Evers is asking the legislature to consider the following:

  • To move to an all-mail election
  • To send a ballot to every registered voter who has not already requested one by May 19
  • To extend the time for those ballots to be received until May 26

Republicans gaveled the session in and out (very few legislators were in attendance)

In a last-minute effort to prevent thousands of people from voting in-person on Tuesday, Governor Evers signed an executive order Friday calling for the legislature to convene in special session Saturday to vote to delay the election.

Republican leaders who control the legislature signaled on Friday they wouldn't take up Evers' proposals and on Saturday gaveled into session without taking any votes.

Evers decides to try executive action anyways

His tweet

In the absence of legislative action, today I signed Executive order #74 suspending in-person voting for the April 7 spring election until June 9, 2020.

State and Federal courts reversed it

The 4-2 decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court — issued hours after Evers ordered the election be put on hold until June in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — found the governor wasn’t authorized to change the date of the election on his own to stem a pandemic that has so far killed 77 people in the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court order stems from three separate cases asking for various voting accommodations that were consolidated. U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled the deadline for local clerks to receive absentee ballots be extended until 4 p.m. on April 13 from the original deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturns much of the lower court rulings and means voters must have their absentee ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day...

Why no change on the part of Republicans?

There's no light that paints the Republicans blameless here, but it's arguable that

  1. Evers waited until the 11th hour to change course
  2. Evers proposed an all-mail-in system to the entire registered voter index. While that makes more sense in light of the COVID-19 outbreak it's not without issues of its own

    While mail-in ballots seem like an elegant solution as the United States grapples with containing COVID-19, experts say slow-moving state and county governments, inconsistent state rules and limited resources to buy essentials such as envelopes and scanners could make it difficult to ramp up nationally to reach more than 200 million registered voters in the November general election. Among the possible downsides of a quick transition are increased voter fraud, logistical snafus and reduced turnout among voters who move frequently or lack a mailing address.

  3. Most of the people who wanted to vote already did so by absentee ballot

    absentee ballots returned in WI April election now up to 864,750, out of 1,282,762 -- as of new data just posted by the Wisconsin Elections Commission

    For comparison, Spring 2019 vote totals were about 1.2M voters

    According to unofficial, Election Night results gathered by WEC from county clerk websites, Brian Hagedorn leads Lisa Neubauer for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice by 5,960 votes, or 0.49% of the 1,206,345 votes cast in the race.

Either way, neither Gov. Evers, nor the Republicans look like winners here. The clear losers were the voters of Wisconsin.

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    (1 / 2) A number of people have not received absentee ballots and it's past the deadline to submit them now. Best source I can find ATM is Justice Ginsburg "Yet tens of thousands of voters who timely requested ballots are unlikely to receive them by April 7" source.
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 12:57
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    It's not quite fair to say "Gov. Evers continued to support the original election date until a few days ago". He didn't support the original election date, in fact he's been trying to change if for a long time, but he argued that he didn't have the power to change it himself and only the Republican controlled legislature could do that. As you document, he did call a special session to try to get a change and, eventually, tried to force it with an executive order.
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 15:28
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    Perhaps he could have done more or pushed more forcefully, but Gov. Evers clearly has been pushing for a delay and the GOP has clearly been fighting against it.
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 15:30
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    Yeah, there's no way to defend all the Republican actions here (especially the special session mess), but it's not 100% on them either. I can't find where Evers did anything more than generically "call on the legislature" prior to late last week.
    – Machavity
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 16:03
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    @Machavity Yeah . . . though it's hard to imagine what else Evers could have done, since the Supreme Courts shot down both the election delay and the extended absentee ballot deadlines. If he acted sooner, we'd probably just have seen the same rulings a few days earlier.
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 17:20

It's about not expanding vote by email, same day registration, etc. to make it easier to vote.

For instance, blue collar voters can't always show up at voting stations due to not having free time -- bosses don't always allow them to take an hour off, and voting stations are sometimes set up in such a way that an hour isn't enough anyway.

The result is voter suppression. And per Trump's own admission on TV on Fox and Friends the other day, it voting by email and other such measures were expanded Republicans would never get elected again.

In this specific race there's the additional issue that Republicans (who are more likely to have followed the misinformation on Covid spread by Fox until recently) might show up anyway whereas Democratic voters will more likely stay home.


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