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Tuesday’s Wisconsin Election Is Our Future

Chaos. A public health disaster. And partisan trench warfare, too.
April 6, 2020
Tuesday’s Wisconsin Election Is Our Future
Tony Evers, Democratic governor of Wisconsin (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Normally, there are around 180 polling places in the city of Milwaukee, serving roughly 300,000 registered voters. Unless there is a drastic, last minute change in plans for Tuesday’s pandemic election in Wisconsin, there will be only five polling locations in the entire city.

Although hardest hit, Milwaukee is not alone. In more than 100 municipalities throughout the state, there will not be a single polling location open, as thousands of poll workers will follow the state’s stay-at-home order.

Many of those poll workers are senior citizens who are fearful of the growing rate of coronavirus in the state, where there have already been 68 deaths. The shortage of manpower is so serious that the governor has called out the National Guard to help process ballots.

Wisconsin’s election will take place two days after the surgeon general predicted that this week would be among the “hardest and saddest” for Americans and compared it to “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.” President Trump said that this “will be probably the toughest week between this week and next week, and there will be a lot of death.…”

As the New York Times editorialized on Saturday, going ahead with the election under these conditions is “insane, and utterly unnecessary.”

Fifteen other states have already postponed their elections and a number have shifted from in-person to mail-in ballots. Just last week, the DNC announced that it was postponing the national convention in Milwaukee from July until August.

In their zeal to ram through this vote, the Republicans in the state legislature are subjecting Wisconsinites to the worst of both worlds: a turnout that will be sharply reduced because so many voters will continue to do the right thing and abide by the stay-at-home order, and yet one that will still be large enough to inundate the few precincts that will be open, and expose masses of people to potential infection.

And in case it’s not yet obvious, what’s happening in Wisconsin is a dry run for what’s coming for the rest of the country in November: Elections roiled in partisan rancor, dysfunction, voter suppression, and questionable legitimacy.

I’ve changed my mind on all of this.

Previously, I had thought that postponing elections sets a very dangerous precedent. Imagine the chaos if President Trump were to call for a delay in the November presidential election? And that’s still true. It is a dangerous precedent. But the threat of COVID-19 is dangerous, too. There is a real chance that a second wave of the pandemic will hit this fall, recreating the electoral crisis we face now.

If that happens, we will have three options:

  • Hold the election in distressed circumstances that may or may not result in chaos.
  • Postpone the election, which would certainly create chaos.
  • Reform the system now so that there is a more stable way to hold the vote should another outbreak take hold.

If this week’s Wisconsin dry-run is any indication, then the best option is reform. And we ought to have started working on it five minutes ago. But of course, even that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In Congress, Democrats are pushing for expanded vote-by-mail to help states avoid a Wisconsin-like FUBAR in November. But for anyone naïve enough to imagine that the country would find a good-faith, common-sense, bipartisan solution for the challenges to election integrity posed by the pandemic, what is happening in Wisconsin should be sobering.

Trump himself is set to lead the effort to block pandemic-era reforms, claiming that mail ballots would encourage fraud. Of course he will be able to rally his base behind this idea. Belief in massive voter fraud is a founding part of the Trump mythos, which insists that despite losing the popular vote in 2016 by 3 million votes, he would have won it if not for voter fraud.

Less overt, but equally deep, is the belief that more people voting is bad for Republicans. As always, Trump has been willing to say the quiet part out loud. Last week on Fox & Friends he claimed the Democrats had a plan “that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

So, expect a scorched earth campaign to block the reforms.

Politico reports that Republican opposition to mail-in balloting is so adamant that the issue “may be a sticking point to any relief package as the U.S. faces mass unemployment and a plummeting economy.”

In Wisconsin, both parties have contributed to the mess.

Until just days ago, the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, had supported going ahead with the election, a move that “infuriated fellow Democrats in the state, who are now openly accusing him of failing to prevent an impending train wreck.” Meanwhile, the state GOP has been consistent: Republicans in the legislature have said no to everything, rejecting Evers’s proposals to send mail ballots to registered voters, or extend in-person voting, or move deadlines for returning and counting absentee ballots.

On April 3—just four days before the election—Evers reversed himself and asked legislators to stop in-person voting altogether. His move was backed by mayors from the state’s biggest cities, who signed a joint letter pleading with state health officials “to step up and stop the State of Wisconsin from putting hundreds of thousands of citizens at risk by requiring them to vote at the polls while this ugly pandemic spreads.”

The next day the GOP-controlled legislature literally spent seconds before gaveling down a special session called by the governor to delay the election and allow mail-in voting. There was no debate. (In the Assembly, the session lasted for 17 seconds.)

At the same time, the Wisconsin Republican party asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal judge’s order that the state extend the deadline for absentee ballots.

Republican leaders openly sneered at the suggestion that in-person voting should be suspended, comparing voting to ordering fast food: “Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement.

Reflecting his casual attitude toward the pandemic, Vos and other GOP legislators also called on the governor to allow in-person services for Easter and Passover, despite warnings from heath experts that such a move might also spread the pandemic. (Evers rejected the idea.)

It is worth noting that no prominent Wisconsin Republican (Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Reince Priebus) has pushed back on the comments or the plans to go ahead with the vote.

But don’t be confused about any the motivations here: GOP position is about power, not ideology.

While the national media will focus on the presidential primary vote (polls show Joe Biden with a big lead over Bernie Sanders), the real action centers on the state Supreme Court. Although technically non-partisan, the elections for the high court have become intensely partisan, and conservatives now hold a 5-2 majority on the high court.

For several years, Republicans have worried about re-electing conservative incumbent Dan Kelly, who was appointed to his seat by former Governor Scott Walker. When legislators realized that his election was set for the same day as the presidential primary—which was expected to bring out hordes of Democrat-leaning voters—they initially considered moving the election to a different day to give Kelly a better chance.

That idea fizzled, but until the coronavirus hit the U.S., there was widespread anxiety that the Democratic turnout for the active Biden-Bernie race would swamp conservative votes and doom Kelly. Biden’s sweep and spread of the pandemic have dramatically changed the shape of the race to the point that Republicans are now convinced that, if they hold the vote on Tuesday, it means they have a shot to re-elect Kelly. As political observer James Wigderson writes, absentee voting “so far appears to be favorable to Republicans as more conservative areas of the state are outperforming Democratic strongholds in returning their ballots.”

He notes that Wisconsin’s premier number cruncher, Joe Handrick, has analyzed the early votes and concluded that heavily red Waukesha and Washington counties are outperforming the state’s Democratic strongholds. “Waukesha County alone has nearly as many absentee ballots returned as Milwaukee County,” he writes. “That is not good news for the liberal challenger, Madison Judge Jill Karofsky.”

Trump is all-in on the Wisconsin strategy. Last week, he suggested that the only reason Democrats wanted to postpone the vote was because they feared that his endorsement (of the non-partisan Justice Dan Kelly, lol) had put the conservative justice over the top.

“In Wisconsin what happened is I through social media put out a very strong endorsement of a Republican conservative judge who’s an excellent brilliant judge,” Trump said in response to a question about whether the November presidential election could be held safely during the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump continued, “He’s a justice, and I hear what happened is his poll numbers went through the roof. And because of that, I think they delayed the election.”

As usual, there are some factual problems with Trump’s statement. For starters, Kelly is supposed to be non-partisan, not “a Republican conservative judge.” Then there’s the question of his poll numbers. (It’s not clear how many polls are in the field for a state Supreme Court election.)

And, most importantly: They didn’t actually delay the election.

The election is set to proceed on Tuesday, despite warnings from one of the state’s top health experts that in-person voting may undo efforts to control the spread of the virus. “It just seems really irresponsible to make this one giant exception,” warmed James Conway, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute.

Almost alone among conservatives in the state, Wigderson, urged Republicans to address the problem seriously. The editor of RightWisconsin (full disclosure: I founded it and served as editor) Wigderson proposed an alternative to Evers’s last-minute proposals.

  1. Delay the election until Tuesday, June 2. That includes the special election in the 7th Congressional district, currently scheduled for May 12.
  2. Allow Wisconsinites to request absentee ballots through the end of April.
  3. Allow local clerks to “fix” absentee ballot issues, such as improper voter ID or unreceived ballots, by May 15.
  4. Allow drive-up voting for special circumstances May 26 to June 1 with the National Guard assisting.
  5. Extend the terms of local offices until June 15 to allow time for elections to be certified.

Delaying the election this way, he argued, “will allow for candidates, the political parties, and the public to adjust to the reality of a mail-in election. If it is made clear that the election will be mail-in only, with very few exceptions, then it will be on the voters to be proactive to acquire the ballots and mail them in before the new deadlines.”

Wigderson will, of course, be ignored.

Because in Wisconsin, the GOP would rather endanger people’s lives and have a clusterfuck election, so long as it gives them a chance at clinging to a piece of government power.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.