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WASHINGTON - The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday ordered the state's Democratic primary election back on, hours after the governor issued an order postponing it in the face of a growing number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the state.
The court in the U.S. Midwestern state ruled 4-2 that Democratic Governor Tony Evers lacked the authority to postpone the election on his own. The court's four conservative judges voted in support of the ruling while the two liberal judges voted against it.
Evers issued an executive order earlier Monday to postpone the primary election until June 9 after he was unable to agree with the Republican-controlled state legislature on a plan for moving the vote to a later date as well as the terms of the balloting, such as whether to allow mail-in voting.
Voters now face a choice of whether to vote in the primary election or to follow the advice of health officials and stay away from crowds.
Thousands of poll workers have said they will not work, leading to the closure of hundreds of polling sites in the state. The city of Milwaukee, the biggest Wisconsin city, said it would have just five polling stations open instead of the planned 180. National Guard troops have been dispatched to help staff the polls.
More than 2,200 confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in Wisconsin and 73 deaths.
More than a dozen U.S. states have postponed Democratic presidential primaries in April and May between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders until weeks from now in hopes that by then the effects of the virus will have dissipated enough to allow voters to show up at polling places to cast ballots without endangering their health.
But Wisconsin was the last holdout refusing to postpone its vote.
Evers had previously questioned his own authority to postpone the state primary, but he said Monday he was acting in the interest of public health.
He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, "The bottom line is the people of Wisconsin, they don't care about the fighting between Democrats and Republicans - they're scared. I'm standing up for those people who are afraid and that's why I'm doing this."
Key state Republican lawmakers called Evers's action "an unconstitutional overreach."
Recent polling shows that Biden is running well ahead of Sanders in Wisconsin. Biden appears to hold an insurmountable lead over Sanders in pledged delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating contest in August and is likely to face Republican President Donald Trump in the November national election. But on Sunday Biden did not directly call for postponement of the Wisconsin election, telling ABC's "This Week" show, "Whatever the science says, we should do."
Sanders had called for the election's postponement.
Residents in 41 U.S. states are under orders from their governors - including Evers in Wisconsin - to stay at home except for essential trips out in public, but Evers did not include voting as essential in issuing his stay-at-home edict.
Some Wisconsin Republicans suggested that Evers did not aggressively push to win legislative votes to postpone the election until recent days. On Saturday, Evers sought to move the voting to May 19 and convert it entirely to mail-in voting, but the Republican-controlled legislature quickly adjourned. It also did not block the election when it met briefly Monday ahead of Evers' order.
Federal district court judge William Conley had refused to stop the election, saying he did not have the power to do so.
"Let's assume that this is a bad decision from the perspective of public health, and it could be excruciatingly bad," he said last week. "I don't think it's the job of a federal district judge to act as a super health department for the state of Wisconsin."
On Sunday, the mayors of Milwaukee and Madison, the state capital, along with other Wisconsin mayors asked state homeland security officials to make the decision to postpone Tuesday's election.