Wisconsin proceeds with U.S. presidential primary despite coronavirus fears

(Reuters) – Wisconsin officials plowed ahead on Thursday with plans for a U.S. presidential primary next week despite a shortage of poll workers and a flurry of legal challenges amid widespread worries about the health risks from the coronavirus.

The pandemic has disrupted the state-by-state Democratic race to pick an challenger for Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, knocking front-runner Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail and forcing every other state with a nominating contest in April to delay or adjust voting plans to limit the health risks.

In Wisconsin, where residents are under orders to stay at home and public gatherings are banned, the state’s Democratic governor and Republican-controlled state legislature have not moved to delay the primary and local elections scheduled for Tuesday – a decision critics said could have severe consequences.

“I think thousands of people are likely to be disenfranchised, and there is a genuine risk that people will contract the coronavirus at the polls,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

A federal judge indicated on Wednesday he would rule soon on lawsuits seeking a postponement of the voting or an expansion of absentee voting.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission reported nearly 60% of the state’s municipalities face a shortage of poll workers, with more than 100 municipalities without staff for even one polling site. The Wisconsin Army National Guard is set to help at the polls on Tuesday.

More than 1.1 million absentee ballots had been requested as of Thursday – surpassing the total turnout in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary – although fewer than half have been returned so far.

Officials have noted the need to conduct the election soon because it will also decide thousands of state and local offices, including a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that could be instrumental in deciding future voting-rights cases. Wisconsin is considered a battleground state crucial to November’s election.

Governor Tony Evers asked the state legislature last week to pass a bill to send an absentee ballot to every registered voter, but Republicans said there was not enough time to make that feasible.

“If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law,” Evers said.

In a legal brief to the federal court handling the lawsuits, Evers asked for an extension of the deadline for getting and returning an absentee ballot, as well as a loosening of provisions requiring a witness to sign the ballot and the installation of drop boxes for returning them.

“Ultimately, a predominantly-by-mail election, with limited but available in-person voting, would be an achievable middle ground that would help protect Wisconsinites’ right to vote, while also helping to keep them safe,” state Assistant Attorney General Hannah Jurss wrote on Evers’ behalf in the brief.

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, urged Wisconsin on Wednesday to delay its primary.

“People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote,” Sanders said in a statement. “The state should delay Tuesday’s vote, extend early voting and work to move entirely to vote-by-mail.”

Biden, the former U.S. vice president, has not weighed in on whether Wisconsin should move ahead.

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