Gov. Tony Evers declares a public health emergency Thursday March 12, 2020 in response to a growing number of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, in Wisconsin.
CNN  — 

Wisconsin is moving forward with plans to hold its primary election next Tuesday, creating a chaotic scenario that’s left state and local election officials scrambling to hold a primary in the middle of a pandemic.

Wisconsin elections officials are trying to keep up as absentee ballots surge, poll workers drop out and supplies are in short demand a week away from a primary in which in-person voting is still set to proceed – despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order and 1,351 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state as of Tuesday afternoon.

Other states with April primaries have postponed them or shifted those contests to vote-by-mail only. But in Wisconsin, the governor has said he won’t delay the election. Republicans who control the state legislature and have enacted strict voter identification laws in recent years, meanwhile, are refusing Evers’ request – made last week, 11 days before the election – to quickly enact a law that would send absentee ballots to every voter in the state.

It’s left some Wisconsin voters to decide between exercising their constitutional right to vote and their safety and local election officials searching for poll workers and supplies. And a last-minute flurry of lawsuits – five were filed in recent days – could still change the rules.

“The Wisconsin election will be like nothing anyone alive has ever experienced,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “Everyone involved in this election is scrambling to try to make democracy work in an impossible situation.”

Already, absentee voting has shattered previous records in Wisconsin. As of Tuesday morning, 972,232 people had requested absentee ballots and 337,563 had been returned, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reported, citing totals submitted by each county.

But there were still court battles over lawsuits seeking to delay the primary, extend deadlines for absentee ballots to be requested and returned, allow absentee ballots to be cast without photo IDs being uploaded online, and allow voters to submit their absentee ballots without them being signed by witnesses.

The deadline to request absentee ballots is Thursday, and the deadline to return them is 8 p.m. on Election Day. Already, state and local elections officials have said they will struggle to mail out those ballots in time for them to be returned ahead of Tuesday’s election. Extending the deadline to request or return ballots could delay the reporting of results.

Shortages of poll workers, pens and hand sanitizer

In-person voting set for next Tuesday also faces massive challenges. A memo Tuesday morning from Meagan Wolfe, the Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator, laid out a dire situation: The state is short nearly 7,000 poll workers, and in 111 municipalities, it has no poll workers at all – potentially forcing Wisconsin to turn to state employees to staff polling places. It’s also running out of absentee ballot envelopes.

Meanwhile, local officials haven’t been able to order hand sanitizer for their polling places – so the state government “turned to local distilleries to obtain alcohol-based sanitizer products,” Wolfe’s memo says. Wisconsin is setting up six distribution centers across the state to get each polling place at least two liters of hand sanitizer.

The state is also trying to obtain 1.5 million disinfecting wipes – it currently has 750,000 available right now, Wolfe’s memo says. And it believes it can ship 1.5 million pens to local elections officials this week, enough to keep voters and poll workers from having to share pens.

And in an effort to allow local officials to consolidate polling places and keep voters and workers from having to touch the same paper poll book during voter ID checks, Wolfe said the state is authorizing the use of its WisVotes voter management system to print a record of each individual voter’s record and then have the voter sign that record.

“These updates to WisVote are low risks to the system, however WisVote has never been used to directly support Election Day processes before. WEC staff has limited time to develop and test this new process,” Wolfe wrote.

Implications for the 2020 general election

The election comes with potentially significant stakes for this year’s presidential race: In addition to the Democratic primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, voters next Tuesday will be deciding a state Supreme Court race. Currently, Wisconsin’s high court is deadlocked, 3-3, on a case that could result in the purge of more than 200,000 voters from the rolls in a state President Donald Trump won by just 23,000 votes in 2016. A conservative justice who represents the deciding vote has so far sat out the case ahead of the election.

Wisconsin’s April 7 primary is the first election since Biden swept Arizona, Florida and Illinois in a head-to-head matchup with Sanders on March 17.

Both candidates and their campaigns have halted all travel and in-person get-out-the-vote efforts, instead broadcasting events online while staff and volunteers have phone-banked and texted potential supporters.

Wisconsin is a key swing state in November’s general election. In 2016, Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in the state’s presidential primary, with its largely white and liberal primary electorate giving him incentive to remain in their hard-fought race despite Clinton’s delegate lead.

This time, Biden has a more daunting advantage, with 1,180 delegates out of the 1,991 it takes to clinch the nomination – 317 more than Sanders, per CNN’s estimate. He has also won states like Michigan that Sanders had won in 2016.

While Sanders’ path to the nomination has already been virtually eliminated, a loss in Wisconsin would indicate that nothing has changed the trajectory of the Democratic race even amid historic circumstances.

The Biden campaign’s Wisconsin efforts have focused largely on providing potential supporters with absentee voting information through calls, texts and social media. The campaign also hosted a tele-town hall with Wisconsin faith leaders that featured Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Biden campaign co-chair, and targeted young people in Madison with advertising for a recent “virtual happy hour” Biden held for young voters.

The Sanders campaign, too, has phone banked and texted potential supporters in Wisconsin, and recently announced Rep. Mark Pocan as the chair of his campaign in the state.

Lawsuits leave last-minute uncertainty

There could still be last-minute changes to the primary process: A spate of lawsuits seeking changes ranging from eased absentee ballot requirements to a delay in the election date are currently in front of judges.

In one significant lawsuit, the Republican Party of Wisconsin sued after the clerks in Democratic-leaning Dane and Milwaukee counties issued guidance to absentee voters saying they could do so without having to upload photos of their IDs – a potential technical hurdle for older and poorer voters.

Republicans in Wisconsin have opposed any changes to delay the primary or move it to a by-mail only voting system.

“That seems to me it would really undermine the election if we don’t let the process to continue as we are,” GOP state Assembly speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Democrats are also seeking flexibility on the requirement that those who submit absentee ballots have witnesses.

Wikler said there are a range of ways in which the courts could extend windows for absentee ballots and ensure all that are mailed in are counted.

“Extending the deadline for absentee ballots to be received would make a huge difference. Extending the window for courts to be able to count ballots would help make this election work. Removing the requirement to get a witness when you file your absentee ballot is common sense,” he said.