April 7, 2020; New York Times
The state of Wisconsin moved forward with its elections this week despite various attempts to delay it in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked a last-minute effort by democratic governor Tony Evers to postpone the election. There are concerns that the decision to hold the election in the midst of a global pandemic will both lower voter turnout and further endanger the public. Governor Evers belatedly issued an executive order to postpone the election the day before it was supposed to take place. Later that evening, the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted along party lines to block the order and move forward with the regularly scheduled in-person election.
Because of the need to wait for absentee ballots to arrive in the mail, final turnout figures won’t be available until next week, but data so far suggest that turnout will be far lower than in 2016. For example, the city of Milwaukee reports it sent out 96,712 absentee ballots and has received back 56,489 as of the close of election day, while an additional 18,803 Milwaukee residents voted in person. By comparison, in 2016, 167,765 Milwaukee residents voted.
Images from polling locations in Wisconsin show voters in personal protective equipment braving the rain to exercise their civic duty. The New York Times reports that only five out of 180 polling stations were open in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city. Wait times at some polling stations were reported to be as high as two hours.
To make things even more confusing, just last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin extended the deadline that voters could submit absentee ballots from April 7th to 13th, in addition to waiving the requirement that a witness must be present to sign absentee ballots. On Monday, the day prior to the election, the US Supreme Court issued an opinion that invalidated the lower court’s rulings.
The ruling effectively nullifies any absentee ballots received that are postmarked after Tuesday. (Ballots postmarked Tuesday that arrive by Monday can be counted.) In her dissenting opinion, Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.” The decision is troubling in light of the fact that thousands of Wisconsin residents are reporting to never have received requested ballots. The New York Times spoke with many residents who did not vote, either because of confusion over the process or complications resulting from the coronavirus.
A doctor in Milwaukee said he never received his absentee ballot and did not want to put his family and patients at risk. An elderly woman in Appleton reported that she mailed in her absentee ballot when the lower court initially nullified the requirement to have a witness present. The Wisconsin Supreme Court later overturned this ruling and reinstated the requirement to have a witness, so her vote will not count. There is no telling how many people did not vote either because they did not receive their ballot in time or out of precaution for their safety.
Many view the recent developments as the culmination of a long record of attacks on voting rights in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has become an important political battleground state over the years. Republicans have controlled major elections in the state until Scott Walker unexpectedly lost the 2018 gubernatorial election by a slim margin. Prior to losing the governor’s office, Republicans took advantage of their control by pushing through various reforms that many viewed as attacks on Wisconsin’s democratic institutions.
In 2011, then-Governor Scott Walker implemented Act 10, which essentially eliminated collective bargaining power for public sector unions. Mother Jones details a list of antidemocratic legislation in Wisconsin that continues to have significant implications, including the passage of a voter ID law that made it harder for people of color to vote, and maps that were gerrymandered so egregiously that it is often used to highlight the issue of politicized redistricting. For example, in 2018 state assembly elections, Democratic candidates received 53 percent of the votes, but won only 36 percent of the seats.
The voter ID law had significant impli