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Frustration over refusal to delay election spurs lawsuit

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Local officials’ frustration with Gov. Tony Evers’ refusal to order any changes to Wisconsin’s presidential primary to protect people from the coronavirus reached new heights as the city of Green Bay sued to stop in-person voting and leaders in River Falls questioned how the election can proceed.

The virus has infected about 460 people in Wisconsin and killed six. Models show that without stricter social distancing measures as many as 22,000 people could contract the virus and as many as 1,500 could die by April 8.

The April 7 election features a Wisconsin Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races, in addition to the presidential primary.

The city of Green Bay and its clerk, Kris Teske, sued Tuesday in federal court. The lawsuit alleges that local governments are finding it “functionally impossible” to administer the election and maintain social distancing.

The lawsuit also states that 90% of the city’s 278 poll workers are at least 60 years old, making them especially vulnerable to the virus. Only 54 of the 278 workers had agreed to work the election as of Friday, the lawsuit said.

The city and Teske want a judge to cancel in-person voting, allow the city to send absentee ballots to all registered voters, extend the deadline for registering online or by mail to May 1, and give the city until June 2 to count ballots.

“No other steps will effectively protect the public from potential exposure to COVID-19 while simultaneously ensuring that no eligible voters are disenfranchised on account of being afraid or unable to go to the polls,” the lawsuit said.

COVID-19 is the disease the virus causes.

River Falls City Administrator Scot Simpson and Mayor Dan Toland issued a statement Wednesday morning to express their “frustration with the Governor’s Office regarding in-person absentee and Election Day voting.”

They questioned how in-person voting — which has already begun in a number of municipalities — can take place in light of an order Evers issued Tuesday directing residents to remain in their homes and prohibiting all nonessential travel. The order does not make any exceptions for traveling to the polls and Evers dodged reporters’ questions Tuesday about how the order affects the elections.

City Clerk Amy White said in the statement that 20 poll workers have informed her that they won’t help on Election Day and one of the city’s five polling places doesn’t have the minimum number of workers the state requires. Simpson said River Falls officials also are worried about a lack of disinfectant and personal protective equipment they need to conduct in-person voting safely.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett sent Evers a letter Monday telling him that city has had to close its three early in-person voting sites because of a lack of workers. He said in-person voting simply isn’t feasible.

A number of states have postponed their presidential primaries, but Evers has steadfastly refused to delay Wisconsin’s election. Many local officials’ terms end in mid-April and delaying the election would leave those offices vacant, the governor has said.

On Monday, he said he was mulling whether to order that the election be conducted completely by mail, but he has yet to take any action. His spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, didn’t immediately respond to a message on Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, the state’s economy is sputtering as businesses have been forced to shut down. Preliminary numbers from the state Department of Workforce Development show more than 105,600 people filed for unemployment during the week that ended Tuesday. A little more than 5,500 people filed for unemployment during the same week last year.

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