Wisconsin is careening towards an election-day disaster on Tuesday, an ominous preview of how the pandemic, paired with partisanship, could shape the presidential elections this fall.
The state is the only one that refused to move its elections out of April to respond to the coronavirus. And the Republicans who control Wisconsin’s state legislature, working closely with the national GOP, spent weeks refusing to change election rules to make it easier to vote safely.
Wisconsin Republicans have been working closely with Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee to try to prevent universal vote-by-mail in the state, part of an expansive effort from the RNC as they ramp up to fight coronavirus-related election changes they think could hurt their election chances.
“There’s serious concern on the conservative side that the liberals are changing the rules in the middle of the election and tilting them toward their favor,” said Brian Reisinger, a top Wisconsin GOP strategist. “There’s a major feeling that absentee and early voting are tools of the left to make up for the fact that they can’t win on election day.”
That sentiment is widely shared in the GOP — and could make it exceedingly difficult for states to come up with ways to pandemic-proof their elections, make sure huge swaths of voters aren’t disenfranchised in November, and avoid extensive post-election litigation that could leave the outcome of the 2020 election in the air long after election day.
“It’s the first general election in the U.S. held during the coronavirus pandemic,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben WIkler told VICE News. “And it’s a preview of the lengths to which Republicans will go to gain political advantage even in the face of very clear public health consequences.”
Trump weighs in
Trump made it clear exactly how he felt about dramatic mail voting expansion that Democrats are pushing for to help states keep their citizens safe while protecting their right to vote.
“The things they had in there were crazy,” he said of House Democrats’ push for more election funds to help states prepare to make their elections pandemic-proof. “They had things, levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The partisan stalemate is deeply damaging to democracy. It’s also putting lives at risk — and election workers are understandably panicked.
Libby Ellsworth-Kasch, a law student in Milwaukee, called VICE News immediately after training to be a poll worker on Friday. While fifty people had signed up for the session, only 30 showed. Even then, officials struggled to enforce social distancing and offered little information on how they’d be able to keep themselves and voters safe, especially with polling sites shutting down left and right.
“I’ve been sitting in a parking lot crying,” she said. “Who’s going to be liable if some of these people get sick? ”
She still planned to show up on election day to help out, but other poll workers have been quitting en masse. That’s forced localities to shutter hundreds of polling places across the state. Milwaukee, which usually has 180 different polling stations, will open just five on Tuesday. Waukesha, a major GOP voting hub in Milwaukee’s suburbs, will have just one polling site open. Poll worker shortages are so dire that Evers has had to request the Wisconsin National Guard volunteer to help man the remaining poll sites.
Other states moved their late March and April primaries without much partisan fuss. But because Wisconsin is also holding general elections — including a hard-fought state supreme court race as well as a number of mayoral and county races — politicians in both parties were torn over whether to delay theirs, and initially opted against it.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) failed to convince Republicans to mail everyone absentee ballots and loosen state voter ID laws that would have made it impossible for some self-quarantined voters to cast ballots. That included requirements to upload photos of voter identification in order to be able to vote, a challenge for older people as well as those lacking smart phones or internet access at home, as well as getting a witness signature on a mail ballot — an impossible ask for those living at home who are supposed to stay inside.
That led to ludicrous public service announcements encouraging people to get their mailmen to watch them fill out their ballots through a window and slip it under the door for them to sign — something that only works if you live on the ground floor of a building.
A judge struck down the voter ID and signature requirements on Thursday, in spite of GOP howls and attempts to appeal the ruling, and extended by a week the time voters were allowed to return ballots. But he refused to move election day, despite pleas from good government groups like the League of Women Voters.
Evers isn’t blameless — he dragged his feet for weeks by insisting that the election go forward and didn’t call for universal mail ballots until well after it was logistically practical to print and send them out to everyone. He reversed course on Friday and publicly begged GOP state lawmakers to cancel in-person voting to avoid “dangerous situations where voters, staff and volunteers will not be able to avoid large groups or practice social distancing when they go out to vote.” He asked that they agree to send mail ballots to everyone who didn’t already receive one, and extend mail voting until May to allow people the chance to vote.
But Republicans refused.
“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said in a joint statement Friday afternoon.
Things may not go completely off the rails in the state, partly because of the judge’s ruling. The state had already sent out more than 1.1 million ballots, two thirds the number of people that voted in the 2016 primaries. Joe Biden is expected to easily defeat Bernie Sanders, so the Democratic primary isn’t as dramatic as it might have been. But the supreme court race looks close, and both sides expect that whoever loses the race will file suit to try to overturn the race’s results.
Democrats and Republicans are deeply divided about how to approach such a hugely crucial elections in the time of coronavirus. But they agree that Wisconsin’s messy, ugly and dangerous election process may well repeat itself across the map in November.
“If the political folks don’t use this as a lesson learned for the fall, they’re making a mistake,” said Wisconsin Republican operative Brandon Scholz.
Daniel Newhauser contributing.
Cover: Volunteers wearing protective masks and gloves assist drivers waiting at an early voting ballot drop off location in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Photo: Thomas Werner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)