Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin on Monday issued an emergency order postponing voting in the state’s elections that were set for Tuesday, attempting to circumvent Republican opposition as coronavirus cases rise in the critical political battleground state.
The executive order suspends in-person voting for more than two months, until June 9, unless the state Legislature and the governor are able to agree on a different date.
Mr. Evers had previously said he lacked the legal authority to move the election. Within minutes of his order, Republican legislative leaders called his move unconstitutional, instructing clerks to move forward with the election. Republicans are challenging the order in the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by a conservative majority.
The stakes are high for both parties: The presidential primaries, a competitive state Supreme Court seat and thousands of local offices are on the ballot. Officials’ terms in office will be extended until the elections are held, according to Mr. Evers’s order. All absentee or early-voting ballots already cast will still be counted.
A separate legal fight over mail-in ballots is already pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We don’t live in a banana republic where the executive can just cancel elections because he doesn’t want to hold them,” Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, wrote on Twitter.
The last-minute decision by Mr. Evers injects more chaos and confusion into an election already rife with legal challenges, court cases and public safety concerns. Some local officials worried that the whiplash could further depress turnout if the State Supreme Court reverses the governor’s decision. Meanwhile, many town clerks and poll workers have said they fear for their safety if in-person voting is held on Tuesday.
The order comes after weeks of wrangling between Mr. Evers, a Democrat, and the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature over whether voters could safely cast in-person ballots in the midst of a pandemic. Already, 15 states and one territory had either pushed back their presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines. Even with the election scheduled to proceed, local officials had said that a number of polling places would be unable to open because poll workers were either sick or unwilling to show up.
With new cases in the state doubling last week and national officials warning of a coming surge, the political conflict finally hit a breaking point.
In recent days, Mr. Evers had called for an all-mail election, mailing absentee ballots to every voter and extending voting to May. On Saturday, state lawmakers rejected those proposals, gaveling out a special legislative session within seconds.
Prominent Democrats in the state, including the mayor of Milwaukee, urged voters to stay at home on Tuesday, as did some local health officials. Some Democrats blame Mr. Evers for letting the situation get out of hand, saying that his early refusal to push for a delay of the primary — instead proposing workarounds like deploying the National Guard to work at understaffed polling places — created electoral confusion.
All weekend, Mr. Evers’s aides and lawyers debated what authority he might have to delay the election. On Monday morning, his team decided to assert his power to order a postponement and announce it early in the day, expecting an immediate court challenge from Republicans.
The State Supreme Court, though technically nonpartisan, has a 5-2 conservative lean. But one of those justices, Daniel Kelly, is likely to recuse himself because he is up for re-election on Tuesday, meaning just one of the conservative members of the court would have to join the liberal judges to keep Mr. Evers’s order in place.
The state has also faced serious questions about its ability to run an election. 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.
On Monday, the state’s already depleted ranks of election workers awaited word from the state courts as to whether the election could move forward.
In Green Bay — which said it would open only two polling locations instead of its usual 31 because more than 250 of its 270 poll workers said they would not be able to show up on Election Day — the mayor put plans on pause.
“Our clerk’s staff and our poll workers were preparing our two polling locations today, and I just had a conversation with my clerk today saying, ‘Hold, leave the equipment in place,’” said Mayor Eric Genrich. “We’re going to wait until our state courts weigh in and offer some further guidance.”
Reid J. Epstein and Astead W. Herndon contributed reporting.