I am a Wisconsin state resident, and last week I watched thousands of my fellow citizens risk infection by turning up to vote in our state primary. What I have to say about this is going to sound incredibly partisan. And, I want you to know that is not normally what I do. In my day job, I work on nuclear weapons policy for a non-profit, and I keep things nonpartisan. But, there is no getting around the politics that played out in my state. The scenario that unfolded was reckless, endangered lives, and has no place in a country that claims to have free and fair elections.
To set the scene, Wisconsin’s election last week wasn’t just our primary. It was also a race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Furthermore, we are several weeks into a Safer at Home order issued by the Governor. All non-essential businesses are shut down, and schools are closed for the rest of the school year. In the middle of all this, many registered voters did not make the deadline to request an absentee ballot. At the same time, thousands of voters did make the deadline, but never received their mail-in ballot. After much back and forth between our Democratic Governor and our Republican-controlled legislature — including a legal challenge by Wisconsin Republicans to the Governor’s attempt to move the date of the election — Wisconsin’s in-person voting went forward as planned last week.
In our largest city, Milwaukee, we normally have 180 polling stations open. But poll workers understandably were concerned about their own health and safety, and many of them refused to work at the polls. As a result, Milwaukee had just 5 polling stations open. Five. For a city of more than half a million people.
To keep social distancing measures in place, Milwaukee polling places had voters standing 6 feet apart while in line. The lines stretched for blocks. Voters waited in line for hours, and some stood through thunder and rain. Armed with makeshift masks and pens they brought from home, Wisconsin voters defended democracy. I couldn’t be prouder of the hardiness and fortitude of the citizens of my adopted state. But, undoubtedly, some of them are going to pay for it with their lives.
This didn’t have to happen. And, the question is, why did it? Why would our elected officials put our public health and safety at risk? On election day, the Republican speaker of the Assembly, Robin Vos, worked a polling place clad in personal protective gear while assuring citizens they were, “incredibly safe.” The cognitive dissonance of that image and the message is almost too much to bear. Of course it was not incredibly safe! By some accounts, we have undone some of the effects of our Safer at Home measures, and in the coming weeks we may see a spike in coronavirus infections. Time will tell.
On the day of the Wisconsin election, during a White House coronavirus press briefing, Trump said that, “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters.”
So, back to the question of why. Why didn’t Wisconsin Republicans want to delay the election? Because they reasoned that the conservative candidate for state Supreme Court would have a better chance of winning if voter turn-out was suppressed. And, holding an election in the midst of a pandemic is likely to do just that.
It’s hard for me to believe that Wisconsin Republicans were willing to risk the lives of Wisconsinites for a state Supreme Court seat. But, the fact is, they were. And, Wisconsin’s election should be a cautionary tale for all Americans. We should all be wary about the election this coming November. Trump has already tweeted that mail-in voting shouldn’t be allowed. On the day of the Wisconsin election, during a White House coronavirus press briefing, Trump said that, “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters.” And, Trump and Republicans in Congress have objected to Democratic efforts to increase election safety related to the pandemic.
While this rhetoric and behavior at the federal level is very disturbing, it’s also important to watch what is going on at the state level. The states have their own responsibilities for implementing elections. If you are looking for voter suppression behavior in general, it’s a good rule of thumb to watch out for purging voter rolls, stringent voter ID laws, and unverified claims of voter fraud.
But in the context of the pandemic, we may begin to see a few additional behaviors. Things like limiting the number of polling stations available, new restrictions on getting an absentee ballot, reducing the availability of early voting, and objections to expanding mail-in voting.
Governors, state legislators, and state election commissions need to start planning now for the possibility of a predominantly mail-in election. That could mean ramping up capacity and mailing an absentee ballot to every registered voter. Democrats in Congress tried to include this and other voting reforms in an earlier stimulus bill but, ultimately, failed to get it included. Help is not likely to come from the federal quarter any time soon. Additionally, advocacy groups need to begin tackling the claim that mail-in ballots equate to more voter fraud. The claim is unsubstantiated and will be used to justify the disenfranchisement of voters.
While I sincerely hope that by November we’ve passed through this crisis and can head back to the polls safely, that might not be the case. And, it’s not an unthinkable scenario, because I just saw it happen last week. Americans shouldn’t have to risk their health to vote. That’s not a free and fair election. The legitimacy of our democracy depends on us getting this right.
(And just in case you were wondering, all the Republican machinations did not pan out for them in Wisconsin. Their candidate for state Supreme Court lost by more than 120,000 votes, due in part to Milwaukee voter turnout.)
Tara Drozdenko is the Managing Director of the Outrider Foundation. Title included for identification purposes only.