Voter suppression in Wisconsin could go nationwide in 2020

We need immediate action to protect the vote in November

A poll worker sits outside of Washington High School wearing a protective mask. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
A poll worker sits outside of Washington High School wearing a protective mask. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Forcing Wisconsinites to go to the polls during a pandemic on Tuesday, April 7, was part of a nationwide voter-suppression strategy that could help re-elect Donald Trump.

Trump knows this. That’s why he tweeted on Wednesday, April 8: 

What doesn’t work out well for Republicans is having free and fair elections, where everyone gets to vote. Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016, is well aware of this. So are Wisconsin Republicans who, thanks to the most gerrymandered voting map in the nation, managed to hold onto control of both houses of the state Legislature, even while a majority of voters chose Democrats in every single statewide race.

Making it hard for people to vote, under the guise of protecting against the negligible problem of voter fraud, has become the Republicans’ strategy for holding onto power.

Wisconsin has been ground zero for this strategy, going back to a confusing and burdensome voter ID law Republicans privately celebrated for its depressing effect on turnout, especially among student voters and people of color.

Last year, Republicans sued to try to force the Wisconsin Elections Commission to immediately purge from the rolls more than 200,000 voters who might have changed address — even though voters  in the past had been wrongfully purged due to faulty information.

But Tuesday was a new low. Republican legislative leaders blocked every effort by Gov. Tony Evers to make it easier for people to vote while under a stay-at-home order during the pandemic. They scoffed at the idea of sending every Wisconsin voter an absentee ballot, saying it was too late. They refused to move the date of the in-person election, calling the proposal “flip-flopping,” even as the crisis got worse. 

When municipalities pleaded that they didn’t have enough workers or volunteers to open polling sites on election day, legislative leaders blew them off. 

Then, with the help of conservative majorities on both the state and federal Supreme Courts, Republicans  overcame the governor’s emergency order to close the polls because of the public health crisis, and forced voters to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health.

The one-two punch from the courts showed the power of a coordinated, national Republican voter suppression strategy. It was the payoff for conservatives who have been playing a long game, pouring money into down-ballot races and working to stack the courts. On a straight ideological vote, the state Supreme Court overturned Evers’ emergency order, and reopened the polls.Then the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court added an extra kick. Not only would the polls be open, but a temporary extension on absentee voting was overturned. Thousands of Wisconsin voters who had requested their absentee ballots but hadn’t received them yet faced a choice: they could either go to the polls on election day, in the middle of the pandemic, or give up their right to vote. 

Republicans didn’t invent coronavirus, but they recognize an opportunity when they see one.

Just ask Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who explained last year that moving the election for state Supreme Court off the date of the usually high-turnout Democratic presidential primary would give conservative Justice Daniel Kelly a better chance.

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Turns out they didn’t have to move the election to get a lower turnout. Coronavirus did that for them.

And now, as we head into fall, the COVID-19 pandemic may act as the invisible hand that helps re-elect Trump.

Epidemiologists have predicted that infection rates might go down during the warm summer months, only to surge back in the fall after Americans have stopped staying at home.

The timing would be perfect for a repeat of the Wisconsin election fiasco, nationwide.

Seeing this possibility, voting rights advocates including Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Common Cause are calling for nationwide absentee voting.

U.S. Sen Elizabeth Warren
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Warren’s plan, first reported by Mother Jones, sounds a lot like what Evers tried and failed to do in Wisconsin. It would require states to mail a ballot to every registered voter with a prepaid return envelope. It also allocates $4 billion in federal funding to help states transition to universal vote-by-mail before November. And it puts the kibosh on the voter purge Republicans are still trying to accomplish here, saying states should refrain from removing voters from registration rolls unless they can prove the person has moved or died, since it will be very difficult for anyone removed to re-register during the outbreak.

This is what Trump, and the Republican Party, are determined to stop.

They don’t want voting to be easy. They want it to be difficult. That’s how they plan to win elections without majority support.

Take it from Wisconsin, where African American voters in Milwaukee saw the number of polling places in their city shrink from 180 to 5. People came out, wearing masks, standing six feet apart, waiting until past dark in long lines in the rain, to try to overcome all of these obstacles.

It was a heartbreaking spectacle. 

Unless we get organized as early as possible, it will be the sign of things to come.

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.