• Ryan O'Connell

The Wisconsin Election Fiasco Is A Wake-Up Call

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

April 14, 2020

Many Republican leaders seem terrified that the U.S. could suffer a massive outbreak of voting in November and that could hurt them at the ballot box.

As a result, some party leaders—notably those in Wisconsin--are taking advantage of the coronavirus threat, trying to scare voters away from the polls and suppress turnout.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are proposing measures to promote the use of absentee ballots or voting by mail. They want to protect voters and ensure that they are not disenfranchised. Congressional Republican leaders are resisting these initiatives.

This is shaping up to be a major fight in Washington, and the outcome could be critical in determining whether the election in November is fair…or foul.

Putting Voters’ Health at Risk

In the Wisconsin primary last week, Republican leaders deliberately put voters’ lives at risk. They fought tooth and nail any attempts to defer the election, despite the clear danger of infection from the coronavirus.

The Republicans, who control the state legislature, refused Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ pleas to postpone the primary election until June, when the virus outbreak might have subsided. They also refused to allow state officials more time to process a record number of requests for absentee ballots.

The Republicans insisted on holding the election on the set date, despite widespread reports that many voters had not yet received their absentee ballots. The Republicans were forcing a cruel choice on many voters: put their health at risk or lose their chance to vote. When the exasperated Governor issued an executive order to defer the election until June 9, the Republican leaders rushed to the State Supreme Court to challenge his move. The Court, dominated by conservatives, “deferred to the legislature”.

The Governor sought a ruling from the Federal courts. Both the district court and appellate courts approved his deferral of the election, as a reasonable step given the public health emergency. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions, taking a narrow, legalistic approach and ignoring the extraordinary circumstances.

Something’s Rotten in the State of Wisconsin

Why did the Republicans in Wisconsin fight so hard to avoid postponing the election? After all, two other Republican Governors, in Ohio and Georgia, postponed their primaries.

In Wisconsin, the Republicans have pursued a remarkably scorched-earth approach to elections, and they have rigged the system to perpetuate one-party rule in the state legislature. In addition, they had powerful motives for discouraging Democrats from voting in this particular primary.

Daniel Kelly, a conservative judge on the State Supreme Court, was up for re-election, but he was facing a strong challenge from Jill Karofsky, a Democrat. Robin Vos, the House leader, and Scott Fitzgerald, the State Senate leader, wanted to suppress turnout by Democrats so they could enhance Kelly’s chances of re-election.

Rigging the System

In 2011, Republicans engineered an extreme gerrymandering of voting districts in Wisconsin, and they want to preserve and protect this cozy arrangement. In the 2018 elections, Republicans received less than half of the votes, yet they “won” about two-thirds of the seats in the state legislature.

They have proposed cutting 200,000 voters from the rolls, and the State Supreme Court will rule soon on a challenge to that measure. Vos and Fitzgerald wanted to keep the friendly Judge Kelly on board for that ruling.

The purge of 200,000 voters would target Democratic-leaning voters, of course. That could help Donald Trump carry Wisconsin in November, as well as preserve one-party rule in the legislature.

This may seem like a cold-blooded approach to running elections, but it certainly looked like an effective strategy. Vos and others especially wanted to suppress the turnout in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city.

The city is a Democratic stronghold, about 40% black, and it has 10% of the state’s population. Usually, there are 180 polling stations in Milwaukee. Last week, there were five, as anxious poll workers refused to show up. Voters had to stand in long lines in the city, and many stayed at home, too scared to jeopardize their health. Meanwhile, in the Republican-dominated suburbs and rural counties, which are not densely populated, there were no long lines, no problems.

However, despite all these shenanigans, Kelly did not win election. Judge Karofsky beat him by a wide margin.

photo: Kamal Krzaczynski/Getty Images

The Solutions: Absentee Voting or Voting by Mail

So far, Wisconsin is an extreme example. However, we face the risk that other state Republican leaders may follow its playbook in November, as they try to dampen turnout in the Presidential and Congressional elections.

Democrats have proposed several approaches to protect voters, and ensure fair elections, if the coronavirus is still a danger in the fall….as it may well be, despite the happy talk coming out of the White House.

We already have the tools for allowing voters to vote safely despite the coronavirus. All states allow voters to use absentee ballots, and two-thirds don’t require any “excuse” or justification. A few states already conduct their elections mostly with mail-in ballots.

There is a key difference between absentee ballots and voting by mail. In most states, a voter must request an absentee ballot. In voting by mail, the state automatically sends a ballot to all registered voters. The second approach seems likely to increase turnout.

Traditionally, states have conducted their elections as they see fit, assuming they don’t violate anti-discrimination laws. Some Republican officials have started to bark about “states’ rights”. However, Congress has the power to set standards for Federal elections conducted by the states. Of course, it will cost the states money to revise their electoral systems.

Democratic Proposals

Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have proposed a Senate bill that would facilitate “no excuse” absentee voting. This is a compromise measure. All registered voters could request an absentee ballot, if 25% of all states declared an emergency because of Covid-19. The Federal Government would contribute $500 million to reimburse the states’ expenses for revising their electoral systems to accommodate more absentee ballots.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has proposed a more comprehensive approach, which requires mail-in voting and would carry a $4 billion price tag. Her proposal would face even stiffer resistance from Republicans, but it may be time for Democrats to think big.

If Congress does not mandate the use of no-excuse absentee ballots or voting by mail, and Covid-19 remains a threat in the fall, many voters may stay away from the polls. A low turnout could call into question the legitimacy of the election results.

That is particularly important, because this will be a fiercely fought, profoundly divisive election. We don’t want a replay of the 2000 election nightmare, with the fights over hanging chads and appeals to the Supreme Court.

Especially this Supreme Court.

Guess Who Doesn’t Like Voting by Mail?

Most Republican leaders don’t like the idea of making voting easier and safer. President Donald Trump has fiercely attacked the idea of expanding voting by mail. So has the chair of the Republican National Committee.

To be fair, some Republican Governors have endorsed expanding the use of absentee voting or voting by mail. But Republican leaders in New Mexico and Minnesota are already mobilizing to block such moves. We can expect more to fall in line.

Trump has claimed that that voting by mail could lead to “massive fraud”. The President has also complained that higher turnout would mean fewer Republicans would be elected.

However, the five states that use voting by mail--Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah--have not experienced any significant problems with fraud. That’s also true for the 34 states that allow absentee ballots without any need for an “excuse”.

There is one glaring exception. In North Carolina, a Republican party operative gathered absentee ballots from a large number of voters in 2018 and allegedly doctored them. You can expect Republicans to make a lot of noise about “ballot harvesting”. But, besides that incident, there is very little evidence of fraud related to absentee voting and voting by mail.

Furthermore, voting by mail is certainly convenient. Just ask Mr. Trump, who voted by mail in the Florida primary last month.

Trump’s Real Concern-His Risk of Unemployment

The threat of losing the election in November probably weighs most heavily on Trump. As he criticized a Democratic proposal for early voting and voting by mail, the President lamented,

“They had things–levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Isn’t it odd that Trump, the “best President, ever” in his own words, is afraid of higher turnout? You’d think Trump would want more Americans to vote, so he would have an even bigger margin of victory.

Perhaps Trump should check in with his party’s leaders in Utah, a mail-in state, whose residents regularly elect Republican candidates. That might reassure him.

Unless Trump is really worried that he would lose the popular vote, again.

Democracy is so inconvenient. Trump must be jealous of Putin: he has a much better deal. The Wall Street Democrat

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