The novel coronavirus outbreak may have closed schools, shuttered businesses, ended sports seasons and even postponed the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. Until Monday, it had not, however, cancelled in-person voting at Wisconsin’s primary elections scheduled for the following day.
Wisconsinites are included in the 90% of the U.S. population that is currently under some form of stay-at-home order or lockdown, but until Monday, when Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, made an 11th-hour executive order delaying the primary until June 9, it appeared as if voters in America’s Dairyland would be forced to choose between exercising their constitutional right to vote and safeguarding their own lives, not to mention those of their fellow voters and election workers.
Why? The choice had been forced upon them by Republican state lawmakers, who control both the upper and lower chambers of Wisconsin’s legislature. In an extraordinary snub on Saturday, the legislature denied a call from Evers to suspend in-person voting. Evers, a Democrat, had called the legislature to meet in a special session to consider a bill that would allow all voters to cast absentee ballots. But the GOP majority immediately rejected any change to the election (which, in addition to the presidential primary, will include many state and local races and a seat on the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court), gaveling in and out of the special session in seconds without taking action.
Obviously, Evers made the right decision to shut down Tuesday’s election — voting in person is perilous right now. It’s contrary to every bit of received wisdom on “flattening the curve” so as to slow the spread of the virus. But the fact that the governor made the right decision should not detract attention from the unconscionable actions committed by the Wisconsin GOP.
According to The New York Times, when all sources indicated that the election would be held, roughly 7000 front-line election workers in Wisconsin said that they wouldn’t show up. Who could have blamed them? They would have been obeying the governor’s orders to stay home except for food or medical needs, essential work or to care for a vulnerable family member or neighbor. Moreover, as a result of the election worker strike, Milwaukee’s total precincts would have likely been reduced from 180 to 12. It would have been inevitable that those open precincts would be inundated with voters, which could’ve exposed untold numbers of people to the virus. The Wisconsin GOP was willing to take that chance. One can hardly help but wonder whether that willingness was fueled by the fact that Milwaukee, where the poll-worker shortage would have been worst, is also home to the most voters of color, and the highest concentration of Democrats, in the state.
Therefore, in their reckless and bad-faith attempt to force an in-person vote, the Wisconsin GOP was set to subject voters to two bad outcomes: a turnout that would have been significantly reduced because many voters would have obeyed the stay-at-home order, and yet one that would have still been large enough to threaten Wisconsinites’ safety. Turnout was expected to be especially low in Milwaukee County, which has been hit hardest by the pandemic — and is also strongly Democrat-leaning and holds a majority of the state’s minority voters.
While the Republican majority claimed that all-absentee balloting can lead to widespread election fraud when they rejected Evers’ call (although evidence suggests fraud is actually lower with absentee voting), we’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time — they really just don’t want people to vote. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this Republican majority gerrymandered state legislative maps so egregiously that in 2011, the GOP won 60% of legislative seats with a minority of the state popular vote. This ill-achieved Republican majority also passed strict voter ID laws which denied minority Wisconsinites access to the ballot at far higher rates than whites and reduced turnout by an estimated 200,000 in 2016 (Donald Trump won the battleground state by fewer than 23,000 votes). Now, the Wisconsin GOP is playing politics with public health.
It is unconscionable. It’s also utterly unnecessary. Obviously, because now Wisconsin’s primary is postponed, the GOP should have allowed it to be from the word go. Fifteen states (including four with primaries this week) have also already postponed or otherwise made changes to their elections in light of the crisis. The entire Democratic National Convention (which is in Milwaukee, for goodness’ sake) has been postponed, too. It’s obvious what the right decision was.
No one should have to risk their life to vote, but no one should have to sacrifice their vote for their safety, either. This week, the GOP got within an inch of forcing Wisconsinites to make that choice.