Our democracy on life support

Wisconsin needs an intervention before April 7

A sign urging people to vote by mail in Maple Bluff, a few blocks from the governors mansion (photo by Ruth Conniff).
A sign urging people to vote by mail in Maple Bluff, a few blocks from the governors mansion (photo by Ruth Conniff).

Adding to the general anxiety and gloom of these uncertain times is the up-in-the-air status of Wisconsin’s April 7 election. Will our democracy be another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic?

We’ve been reporting every day on the efforts by citizens’ groups pushing for the postponement of Election Day, or an all mail-in vote, or at least an easing of requirements so that absentee voters don’t have to get witness signatures.

Today is the last day to register to vote online — the deadline was extended by a federal judge through March 30 in response to a lawsuit brought by the Democratic National Committee and the Wisconsin Democratic Party. 

But the sick, the elderly, poll workers, strapped low-income workers and people with limited internet access and other obstacles to contend with are going to have a hard time exercising their right to vote.

These disparities matter a lot, especially in the most important race in the spring election — the one for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

A yard sign for Justice Daniel Kelly net the governor's mansion in Maple Bluff (photo by Ruth Conniff).
A yard sign for Supreme Court candidate Justice Daniel Kelly (photo by Ruth Conniff).

Apart from the Democratic presidential primary, the Supreme Court race between Justice Daniel Kelly, a Scott Walker appointee, and his challenger Judge Jill Karofsky, is the only one that will be directly affected by the uneven access to voting around the state. 

That’s because, in local elections for school boards and city councils, all the voters will face more or less the same barriers to voting. But in the statewide Supreme Court race, different parts of the state will have very different representation. And that could have a direct effect on the outcome. 

Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold and the city that has been hit the hardest by COVID-19, has shut down all of its in-person early-voting polling locations.

Not so in Waukesha, a Republican bastion, where you can still make an appointment to cast an in-person absentee vote with the city clerk. 

A yard sign for Supreme Court candidate Judge Jill Karofsky in Maple Bluff (photo by Ruth Conniff).
A yard sign for Supreme Court candidate Judge Jill Karofsky (photo by Ruth Conniff).

Republicans know that they benefit from low voter turn-out, especially in Democratic areas. That’s why, during the lame-duck session just after Gov. Tony Evers was elected, Republicans in the Legislature attempted to move the date of the Supreme Court election so it wouldn’t coincide with the high-turnout Democratic presidential primary.

That effort failed — thanks in part to an outcry from local officials who were scandalized by the extra costs involved in holding a totally unnecessary extra election.

Then came the voter-purge lawsuit by the rightwing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (whose board members are donors to Kelly). The Wisconsin Elections Commission resisted WILL’s insistence that it immediately purge from the rolls 200,000 voters who might have moved, because those voters had not been properly notified, and because of a history of mistakenly purging people who had not actually moved. The state Supreme Court turned down WILL’s request that it bypass a lower court and take the case after Kelly recused himself. That recusal appeared to be a tacit acknowledgment that he would be the beneficiary of what amounted to a voter-suppression effort. (He also said he might un-recuse himself after April 7).

Now it looks as though COVID-19 is accomplishing what Republican voter-suppression efforts could not.

Local officials have been desperately trying to tell state officials that they simply can’t handle a normal, in-person April 7 vote. They lack sufficient staff, and even sufficient hand sanitizer, to pull it off.

On Friday, Evers finally asked the Legislature to pass a law mandating that ballots be mailed to every registered voter in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald scoffed at the request, calling it a “fantasy” and a “hoax.”

But the real hoax is holding an April 7 election that purports to be free and fair, with polling places shut down in many areas, and voters forced to choose, as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett put it, between their right to vote and their health.

Fourteen states have rescheduled their spring elections, or gone to all mail-in ballots. Six have pushed back voting until June. But Wisconsin is pushing ahead.

The COVID-19-related election crisis is just one more example of Wisconsin following a rightwing voter-suppression playbook that thwarts the will of the voters to help Republicans hold onto power. It’s a playbook that uses voter ID laws that purport to solve the nearly nonexistent problem of in-person voter fraud and a scandalously gerrymandered map that has locked in Republican control of our Legislature, despite the fact that the majority of the votes cast statewide are for Democrats. Keeping down the vote down benefits Republicans and their big-money allies.

For decades now, special interests have been pouring money into our state Supreme Court elections, hoping to buy favorable decisions, and tarnishing the Court’s reputation for impartiality and ethics.

Dan Kelly is on their side. He took money from WILL board members before and after ruling on issues the group had before the court. He took money from the NRA, and held a fundraiser on a gun range in Brookfield just a day after the mass-shooting at the Molson brewery in Milwaukee. He opposes government safety-net programs and has described them as “stealing” from taxpayers.

Finally, the biggest reason the state Supreme Court election is so important is that the very issues of democracy and voting rights that are at play in the current election are very likely to come before the court in the near future, including gerrymandering, voting rights, and the balance of power in our state government.

In the coming days a handful of lawsuits now in federal court could help decide what happens to the April 7 vote. Among the possible outcomes are an extension that the Democratic Party is seeking in its lawsuit, to allow clerks to continue to count absentee ballots for 10 days after April 7.

The governor also has broad powers under the public-health emergency he already declared. These include the ability to:

  • Issue such orders as he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property.  
  • Suspend the provisions of any administrative rule if the strict compliance with that rule would prevent, hinder or delay necessary actions to respond to the disaster.  
  • Declare priority of emergency management contracts over other contracts, allocate materials and facilities in his or her discretion, and take, use and destroy, in the name of the state, private property for emergency management purposes.

Evers has not pushed the limits of those powers in the current public-health crisis, which is going to get worse. 

And the crisis we are facing is not just a matter of public health. Our democracy badly needs a life-saving intervention.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.