Weekend of squabbling but no progress on Wisconsin’s election

April 6, 2020 7:00 am
A sign guides voters on Election Day at 514 Studios on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 06: A sign guides voters on Election Day at 514 Studios on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Fifteen states have changed their election dates to avoid large gatherings of people at the polls during the coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsin is not one of them. In fact, ours is the only state that is rolling ahead with in-person voting this month.

As we all watch the slow-motion car wreck that is the April 7 election bearing down on us, the window is closing for us to get out of the way.

Holding Tuesday’s election as planned will be both a political and a public-health disaster.

But when Gov. Tony Evers called the Legislature into special session on Saturday to consider holding an all-mail-in vote, sending every registered voter an absentee ballot, and extending the deadline for voting well into May, Republican legislative leaders thumbed their noses at him, opening and then adjourning the session within a matter of seconds, and refusing to debate. 

“Republicans in the Legislature are playing politics with public safety and ignoring the urgency of this public health crisis,” Evers said in a statement. “It’s wrong. No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote. Being a good leader means listening to the experts, being willing to adjust our course based on the science, and making the tough decisions necessary to protect the people of our state.”

The session could resume on Monday, and legislators could still act. But it seems unlikely that they will take up Evers’ proposal to close the polls, given legislative leaders’ open contempt for the governor, whom they called “feckless” in a statement, adding “If the governor had legitimate concerns, we could have come to a bipartisan solution weeks ago.”

Never mind that the COVID-19 crisis has significantly worsened over the last few weeks.

Also on Saturday, the Republican National Committee and the state Republican Party displayed their disdain for democracy by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a judge’s ruling that extends the deadline for counting absentee ballots to April 13.

In their brief, the Republicans argue that “requiring a state to permit unlimited absentee voting for almost a week after election day presents significant dangers to election integrity, voter confidence and the orderly administration of an election that already has strained state resources due to the difficult circumstances associated with COVID-19.”

This argument is simply specious.

With more than a million absentee ballot requests spurred by the pandemic, local elections officials say they are overwhelmed, and, as of Sunday, tens of thousands of ballots had not come in yet. The U.S. Post Office has warned that voters who requested their absentee ballots by the deadline would not necessarily receive them in time to vote. 

As the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, the Democratic National Committee and voting rights groups argued in their response to the U.S. Supreme Court, a district court’s extension on absentee voting, which the Republicans seek to block, “will result in more voters being able to cast their ballots and ensure those ballots will be counted, rather than threatening to keep voters from casting their ballots.”

“The court’s injunction, in other words,” the respondents added, “is an effort to mitigate the confusion and chaos caused by the pandemic that are interfering with voters’ reasonable expectations and threatening to keep them from voting.”

The Republicans are not concerned about election integrity or voter confidence. Instead, they see the pandemic as a gift — a form of voter suppression they did not dream up, but that they are determined to take advantage of to help them win, especially when it comes to the State Supreme Court race.

When Republicans tried to move the spring election off the date of the usually high-turnout presidential primary, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) explained that doing so would give conservative Justice Daniel Kelly a better chance of winning.

And don’t forget, Wisconsin Republicans were “giddy” about suppressing minority and student voting through voter ID laws, according to one staffer who quit in disgust. Nationally, many Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have said point-blank that their party benefits from low turnout. Now they are determined not to miss the chance COVID-19 gives them to keep down the vote, especially in large urban areas.

If coronavirus is still around in the fall, the Wisconsin’s primary could turn out to be a dry run for the general election.

No doubt about it, holding an election in the midst of a pandemic is a disaster for democracy.

But it’s also a public-health disaster. In Ohio, where the governor tried to move the election and was blocked by a court, the state public health department ultimately shut down in-person voting at the last minute.

In his Friday press conference with Department of Health Services secretary-designee Andrea Palm, Evers was noncommittal about whether Wisconsin might see a last-minute shutdown of polling places because of the public-health threat. 

Evers has been reluctant to use all of his broad emergency powers. And it’s true any big moves will likely end up in court. But those powers 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.

Asked about Ohio, Evers objected that while that state was only voting in the presidential primary, Wisconsin has 6,000 local elections at stake. “So, the comparison between us and them is immaterial.”

But that’s a matter of politics and governance. What about public health?  

Evers is in a tight spot, with both the Legislature and the state Supreme Court ready to resist and overturn him at every step. But he is also facing the possibility that an in-person vote on Tuesday, especially in areas that have consolidated their polling places so more voters will be gathering in fewer spaces, will mean more people get sick and even die.

“We will continue to fight to find ways to make sure that Wisconsinites are safe. And that’s our bottom line,” Evers said.

He doesn’t have much choice. It’s just plain irresponsible to send people out to vote on Tuesday.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.