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Citing virus threat, Wisconsin governor postpones Tuesday's election

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Washington (AFP)

Wisconsin's governor, citing the risk to poll workers and voters from coronavirus, ordered Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary and local elections in the midwestern US state to be postponed until June.

"I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing," Governor Tony Evers said after issuing an executive order delaying in-person voting until June 9.

Evers moved to delay the election unilaterally after the Republican-majority state Senate and state Assembly ignored his repeated appeals for a postponement.

"The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe," said the Democratic governor, whose order is likely to face a court challenge from his Republican opponents.

"Suspending in-person voting on April 7 is necessary to protect the security of the people of Wisconsin and slow the spread of COVID-19," the governor's order said. "No Wisconsinite should ever have to choose between exercising their constitutional right to vote and being safe, secure, and healthy."

Wisconsin, like dozens of other US states, is under a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has caused more than 10,000 deaths in the United States.

Fifteen US states and one territory have already delayed their presidential primaries because of COVID-19, but Wisconsin was going ahead despite health concerns and a shortage of poll workers.

Former vice president Joe Biden is favored over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary being held in the state to select a Democratic opponent to face President Donald Trump in November.

Sanders, 78, had called for the Wisconsin primary to be delayed while Biden, 77, the frontrunner in the Democratic contest, said it was up to local officials to decide.

- 'Disease vector' -

Before Monday's executive order, Evers had sought to postpone the election until May and have it done entirely by mail but the Republican-majority legislature adjourned over the weekend and again on Monday without taking up his proposal.

Two members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, in a letter to the leader of the state Senate and speaker of the state Assembly, said it was a mistake to proceed with the election "in the face of a deepening and escalating COVID-19 crisis."

"Forcing an in-person election on Tuesday not only threatens the voters, the clerks and election staff, it threatens everyone those people subsequently come into contact with at home and elsewhere," commissioners Ann Jacobs and Mark Thomsen wrote.

"A single asymptomatic virus-carrying poll worker could transmit the virus to hundreds of people on election day, creating a disease vector that would devastate a community," they said.

The election commissioners also said there was a severe staffing shortage at polling stations and 111 municipalities did not have enough poll workers to open a single polling site.

They said others have had to be consolidated, risking the sort of crowding that health experts have warned can contribute to the spread of the virus.

Milwaukee, the biggest city in the state, for example, usually has 180 polling places, they said, but would have only five.

They also condemned a plan to bring in members of the National Guard to work at polling stations.

Besides the presidential primary, Wisconsin residents would also be voting for mayors, judges, county executives and other local officials.

Milwaukee is to be the site of the Democratic National Convention where the party nominee will be crowned.

The Democratic National Committee announced last week that the convention was being delayed from July to August 17 because of the coronavirus epidemic.

According to the Wisconsin health department, 2,267 people have tested positive for new coronavirus in the state and there have been 68 deaths.

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