Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin on Friday requested that absentee ballots be sent to every one of the state’s 3.3 million registered voters ahead of its April 7 presidential primary, the latest effort to change how elections are conducted this spring as states across the country scramble to protect voters and poll workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Evers, a Democrat, cannot send the ballots on his own; he asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to convene and approve a measure to do so. But the request represents a significant change of course by the governor, who had repeatedly said in recent weeks that the primary and other elections in the state should go ahead as planned, even as local officials begged for a delay.
It is not clear, however, whether lawmakers will comply, how swiftly they might do so and whether ballots could be mailed to millions of Wisconsin voters quickly enough with less than two weeks before the election. Officials said Friday that they were still preparing for in-person voting at polling places by placing special orders for hand sanitizer and calling for volunteer poll workers.
More than a half-dozen states that were scheduled to hold presidential nominating contests in March and April have now postponed them. Wisconsin, if it holds firm on April 7, is poised to play a major role in the Democratic race, and perhaps a bigger one than before the changes.
With 84 delegates up for grabs, it is a state that Senator Bernie Sanders won decisively in the 2016 Democratic primary, and one he would need to win again to lend some validity to his remaining in the race this time around. A significant victory by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would most likely lead to more calls for Mr. Sanders to end his bid and consolidate the party’s support around Mr. Biden.
“My focus has been and will continue to be ensuring everyone has the opportunity to cast their ballot in the upcoming election,” Mr. Evers wrote on Twitter on Friday. “That’s why today I am calling on the Legislature to act to send an absentee ballot to every registered voter in Wisconsin.” He also asked that ballots postmarked on the day of the election be accepted and that election clerks be given more time to count the votes.
Asked during a news conference on Friday whether there would be enough time to mail ballots to every voter before April 7, Mr. Evers said, “It ain’t gonna be easy, but we’re gonna do it.”
Leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature have indicated that they want to move forward with the election on April 7. On Wednesday, Robin Vos, the speaker of the State Assembly, and Scott Fitzgerald, the State Senate majority leader, told reporters they had no plans to alter election proceedings.
“I know we can do it safely, and at this point I’m agreeing with Governor Evers that we should continue,” Mr. Vos said.
Mr. Evers had issued a “safer at home” order earlier this week that shuttered nonessential businesses and prohibited nonessential travel in the state, further raising questions about how the state would hold an election if its citizens were supposed to stay away from public places.
The state is not just holding a presidential primary election on April 7, but also numerous state and local races, including a closely watched State Supreme Court race.
For the past week, local officials, particularly in some of the bigger cities, have said that they simply would not have the staff to run an in-person election because of workers’ concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. In Green Bay, 145 out of 270 poll workers have said they will not be working this election, and 90 percent of poll workers are over 60. In Madison, more than half of the workers said they would not show up. In Milwaukee, there have not been enough workers to open the city’s three early voting locations, leaving in question how it could operate 180 polling places on Election Day.
“I’ve got kids home from college, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, I would not ask them to sit in a room greeting dozens of people right now,” Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, said in an interview. “I couldn’t expect citizens to do that either.”
The possibility that the state’s largest cities, which lean Democratic, could be forced to shutter some polling locations and relocate others, while suburban and rural Republican-leaning areas remain less compromised by the virus, has led some to wonder about possible impacts on the State Supreme Court race, one of vital importance to the state parties and often a bellwether of November voter behavior.
As of Friday, more than 760,000 voters had requested absentee ballots in Wisconsin, nearly five times the amount requested during the 2018 midterm elections. The surge in requests has taxed already understaffed election clerks’ offices around the state, and has already pushed a system that has never topped 10 percent voting by mail to its limit.