Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the governor could not postpone Tuesday’s elections because of concerns about the coronavirus, a decision that throws into chaos a presidential primary and nearly 4,000 local contests.
The court ruled 4-2, along ideological lines, that Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, could not use emergency powers to unilaterally change the date of the election, which he sought to do to circumvent Republican opposition to the move.
Mr. Evers had previously said he lacked the legal authority to delay the election and had called upon the Republican-controlled Legislature to reschedule it. But on Monday Mr. Evers argued that a postponement was necessary to protect voters and slow the spread of the virus. Within minutes of the order, Republican lawmakers called his move unconstitutional, instructing clerks to move forward with voting.
The Legislature’s leaders then challenged the order in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled by a conservative majority.
Separately, in another blow to Wisconsin Democrats, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative-leaning majority ruled against their attempt to extend the deadline for absentee voting in Tuesday’s elections. In a 5-4 vote, the majority said that such a chance “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.” The court’s four liberal members dissented, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing that “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.”
Mr. Evers had expressed confidence on Monday that the State Supreme Court would not reverse the postponement. “This is it,” he said during a live-streamed news conference. “There’s not a Plan B, there’s not a Plan C. We believe the Supreme Court will support us on this.”
After the court’s ruling, Mr. Evers said in a statement, “Tomorrow in Wisconsin, thousands will wake up and have to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe.”
Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter that the United States Supreme Court’s decision on absentee voting would “consign an unknown number of Wisconsinites to their deaths.”
The stakes are high for both parties: The ballot includes the presidential primaries, thousands of local offices and a competitive seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court itself.
“The state’s highest court has spoken: the governor can’t unilaterally move the date of the election,” Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and Scott Fitzgerald, the State Senate majority leader, who are both Republicans, said in a joint statement after the court’s decision.
The last-minute moves injected more chaos and confusion into an election already rife with legal challenges, court cases and public safety concerns. Some local officials worried on Monday that the whiplash could further depress turnout on Tuesday.
Would-be voters who requested but did not receive absentee ballots — a population as large as 12,000, officials said — will have no recourse but to trek to the polls Tuesday.
“If they haven’t got their ballot in the mail, they are going to have to go to the polling place tomorrow,” said Dean Knudson, a former Republican state legislator who serves as chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Mr. Knudson, during a rollicking 1-hour-40-minute online session late Monday, said the commission had directed local municipal and county clerks who administer the state’s elections not to release results until next Monday afternoon.
“Instead of having Iowa-style results where no one knows what to expect, if we stick to this we’re going to have a clean election tomorrow but we’re not going to report the results until the following week,” he said.
Public polling in the Democratic presidential primary contest showed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a sizable advantage over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, though Mr. Sanders won a landslide victory over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin four years ago. Mr. Sanders last week called for the election to be postponed.
Mr. Evers and Republican lawmakers have wrangled for weeks over whether voters can safely cast in-person ballots in the midst of a pandemic. Already, 15 other states and one territory have either pushed back their presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines.
Even with Wisconsin’s election scheduled to proceed, local officials have said that a number of polling places will be unable to open because poll workers are either sick or unwilling to show up. Many clerks and poll workers said they feared for their safety if in-person voting were held on Tuesday.
With reported coronavirus cases in the state doubling in the last week and national officials warning of a coming surge, the political conflict finally hit a breaking point on Monday.
In recent days, Mr. Evers had called for holding an all-mail election, sending 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, have urged voters to stay at home on Tuesday, as have 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 the court challenge.
“It has all sorts of disturbing limitations that a single person, a partisan actor, could suspend an election,” said Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative think tank in Milwaukee.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, though technically nonpartisan, has a 5-2 conservative lean. One of the conservative justices, Daniel Kelly, recused himself on Monday because he is up for re-election on Tuesday.
The state has faced serious questions about its ability to run an election amid the pandemic. 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.
Astead W. Herndon contributed reporting.