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Wisconsin Primary Election Still Scheduled To Go Forward As Other States Postpone


More than half a dozen states have pushed back presidential primaries because of the coronavirus outbreak. One state that hasn't - Wisconsin, which has a primary coming in about two weeks on April 7. Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports on why state leaders are holding on so tightly to that date despite a public health crisis that's getting worse by the minute.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: One reason the state isn't changing the date - it's not just the nearly over Democratic primary that's on the ballot. Here's Governor Tony Evers talking to reporters at a press conference last week.


TONY EVERS: I just want to make sure people understand the complexity of our spring general election. It's not a primary election. It's only a primary election for the presidential candidates.

SILVER: Many mayors and county officials whose decisions are crucial during this pandemic are also on the ballot.


EVERS: How long do we potentially leave offices not filled because we're into July, August and we haven't held a general election?

SILVER: Many high-profile leaders here have said the state should delay, although election officials point out that Wisconsin has no-excuse mail-in voting. People are requesting absentee ballots at a record-setting pace. But there's a political and legal fight over how to respond to the virus. Democrats have sued, saying these unusual circumstances justify extending online registration deadlines to make sure people can request mail-in ballots without going to the polls. And a federal court has agreed. Republicans say deadlines were put in place for a reason and complain that clerks in rural areas aren't ensuring enough early voting takes place.

Clerks have to provide some in-person early voting despite health concerns, says Reid Magney, a spokesman for the state elections commission.

REID MAGNEY: They can't just say that nobody is going to get to come into city hall or village hall or town hall to vote. They have to offer some hours. They can adjust that based on their own needs, but they can't just say, we're not doing it.

SILVER: It's uncertain how that will be enforced, as some places, including Milwaukee, have canceled in-person early voting out of concern for election workers' safety. There are plenty of other challenges, too - how to process all those absentee ballots, how to find cleaning supplies for polling places. Then there's finding poll workers, half of whom are over 60. Magney says most people will probably vote absentee. But it's impossible for Wisconsin to shift to an all-mail-in election at this point, says Barry Burden, University of Wisconsin political science professor. He says, expect turnout to be lower.

BARRY BURDEN: Fortunately, the Democratic presidential nomination has mostly been settled by this point. So that's one worry that at least is off the table. And I think Wisconsin will be of some value for election officials around the country to see how a state that had some weeks to prepare adapted.

SILVER: Voters are still making efforts to be counted. Sarah Stangle, nicknamed Starah, says getting an absentee ballot is one extra burden at a tough time. After being laid off, she's applying for unemployment and figuring out how to make ends meet.

SARAH STANGLE: I'll be getting an absentee ballot for sure because I don't think it's safe to go to the polls, honestly.

SILVER: Another Milwaukeean, August "Augie" Ray, is sticking with what he knows.

AUGUST RAY: I am 83 years old, and I have voted in every election that I was eligible to vote in. And I intend to vote in the upcoming election in April, and I intend to vote at the polls.

SILVER: Ray lives a two-block walk from his polling place. He plans to bring a sanitizer wipe.

For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maayan Silver
Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM's News Team since 2018. She joined WUWM as a volunteer at Lake Effect in 2016, while she was a practicing criminal defense attorney.