Biden and Trump campaigns haven't called on Wisconsin to postpone primaries amid pandemic

One official says state hyper-partisanship is dictating "decision-making."

April 3, 2020, 9:33 PM

Wisconsin's primary elections are moving forward as scheduled on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And despite conflicting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about limited larges gatherings, both campaigns for former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump say they won’t call on the state to postpone their respective contests.

U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled on Thursday that in-person voting would not be canceled or postponed, but voters in Wisconsin now have an additional day to request an absentee ballot, until Saturday at 5 p.m.

Voters will now have an additional six days to get their absentee ballots to election officials.

However, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-led state legislature have not made major changes to the state's election date, unlike other states who have postponed their elections. But on Friday, in a last-minute effort to protect Wisconsin voters from COVID-19, Evers issued an executive order to call the Republican-controlled state legislature into special session.

Evers is urging state lawmakers to move to an all-mail election, do away with in-person voting on April 7, send every voter an absentee ballot, and extend the deadline to return absentee ballots to late May, essentially delaying the primary.

Jill Mickelson helps a drive up voter outside the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building Monday March 30, 2020, in Milwaukee. The city is now allowing drive up early voting for the state's April 7 election.
Morry Gash/AP

Biden, the Democratic front-runner, sparked controversy after saying he believed the primary could be held next Tuesday amid the pandemic, while adding it’s ultimately up to local officials.

"Well, the answer is I'd listen to the scientists. Having a convention, having tens of thousands of people in one arena is very different than having people walk into a polling booth with accurate spacing, 6 to 10 feet apart, one at a time going in and having machines scrubbed down," Biden said during a virtual press conference on Thursday.

"I think you can hold the election as well dealing with mail-in ballots and same day registration. I mean there's a lot of things that can be done. That's for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide, but I think it's possible to do both...And I think it could be done based on what I've been hearing from the news and what I understand the governor and others are saying. But that's for them to decide," Biden added.

ABC News has reached out to the Biden campaign to clarify if the former vice president has changed his position after Evers' announcement Friday.

Some progressive voices have criticized Biden's stance on the Wisconsin primary, including supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has called on Wisconsin to postpone the primary election amid the coronavirus. Ryan Grim of The Intercept called it "despicable" and "irresponsible" for the former vice president not to call on the state to delay the contest amid the pandemic, a tweet that Sanders' national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray retweeted.

The president's reelection campaign also offered a severe response, claiming the former vice president wanted voters to "risk their lives because he’s so desperate to be the nominee."

"@JoeBiden, the man who claims he has all the answers to the virus crisis, wants the people of Wisconsin to risk their lives because he’s so desperate to be the nominee. SAD!" Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale wrote in a tweet on Thursday.

However, the Trump campaign itself has not called on Wisconsin to postpone or alter their Republican primary amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite criticizing Biden.

"It's a state call whether to delay the primary or not," a Trump campaign senior official told ABC News. "We hope they make the best decision for the safety of voters. They know better what’s happening on the ground."

From left Katherine Katsekes, and Diane Scott, both paid volunteers, help sort absentee ballots by ward to be opened on election day at Brookfield City Hall, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

On Friday, Trump also endorsed a candidate on Twitter who’s on the ballot Tuesday in Wisconsin running for a Supreme Court seat.

"Highly respected Justice Daniel Kelly is running for the Supreme Court in the Great State of Wisconsin. Justice Kelly has been doing a terrific job upholding the Rule of Law and defending your #2A. Tough on Crime, Loves our Military and our Vets. He has my Complete Endorsement!"

Trump reached the delegate threshold to become the presumptive Republican nominee earlier in March. The former vice president remains over 700 delegates away from clinching the Democratic nomination and Sanders remains in the race with over 900 delegates.

The Republican National Committee argued that by extending the absentee voting period, Democrats will have more of an advantage and that the changes were made to "fit their far-left agenda," according to press secretary Mandi Merritt.

"It is unprecedented to allow votes to be cast after Election Day has already occurred, and we are appealing the judge’s decision in order to uphold the integrity of our elections," Merritt said in a statement.

The RNC and the Wisconsin Republican Party have argued that asking a judge to change election laws days before voters are set to head to the polls is "dangerous."

"Asking a federal judge to change completely how we do election laws in Wisconsin in a matter of two or three days was dangerous. Honestly, think about how long it has taken us to develop our election laws or regulations or rules and to get it, even changing the game between now and November, makes me a little uneasy," Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt told ABC News.

Hitt said that with Judge Conley’s order to extend the absentee voting period, the date of the election is effectively changed to April 13, despite the fact that voters still have the option of voting in-person on Tuesday.

"It doesn't seem like now is the time to reinvent a new process or a new election strategy, and the result of his decision is you're going to start to see results trickle in, but people are still voting," Hitt said.

As Democrats and Republicans in the state spar over the best path forward for voters, one Milwaukee election official told ABC News that the hyper-partisanship in the state is dictating "decision-making."

"This is a politically polarized state," said Neil Albrecht is the executive director for the City of Milwaukee Election Commission. "And I think it is a state government that has put party politics at the forefront of any practical decision-making. And because of that, I'm not optimistic that the type, the type of action that is so critical to the public health and safety of this state's residents is actually going to happen."

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, April 3, 2020, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled on Friday afternoon that results must be posted after the deadline for ballots to be returned on April 13.

"Ultimately, he said he wasn't going to change the date and ultimately what he did is change the date, and we don't think he has the authority to do that," Hitt said.

Hitt told ABC News that asking voters to go to the poll on Tuesday isn’t demanding too much -- but people should use their best judgement.

"We’ve found a way to do many essential things throughout the country. We can grocery shop, you can go get alcohol," Hitt said. "People need to be careful, you know they’ve had a lot of time here to pull an absentee ballot. There’s a common sense element to this."

The RNC and the Wisconsin Republican Party have said in their appeals against the judge’s decision that imposing a vote-by-mail system ahead of November will result in "significant problems" in administering the election.

"Imposing a new system onto states unnecessarily will result in significant problems in the November election, and it is critical we work to preserve the integrity of the democratic process," Merritt told ABC News.

ABC News' Johnny Verhovek contributed to this report

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