Campaign of Tony Evers for governor / CC BY

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 implications for the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election. Mother Jones explains that “the law prevented up to 23,000 people from voting in Milwaukee County and Madison’s Dane County—a margin larger than Trump’s 22,000 vote victory in the state.” Milwaukee and Madison are Democratic strongholds and most people of color in the state live in these areas.

Republicans across the country are no longer shy about discussing voter suppression as a strategy to win elections. In a recent interview for Fox News, President Trump stated that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if reforms were included in the stimulus package that would have increased voter turnout. More recently, a case is making its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court that could result in over 200,000 voters being purged from the voter rolls.

The decision to continue with the election happened as New York reported its highest death toll in one day this week. There are also rising concerns that communities of color will be disproportionately impacted by the virus. The Washington Post reports that 33 of the 45 residents who have died from COVID-19 in Milwaukee County were black, yet they only make up 28 percent of the overall population. Similar data is being reported out of Louisiana.

Assembly speaker Robin Vos showed up to work a polling station with more personal protective equipment than most of our healthcare workers. Vos proclaimed to Wisconsin residents, “You are incredibly safe to go out.” He argued that showing up to the polling stations is safer than going to the grocery store.

Interestingly, the election in Wisconsin included an important Supreme Court election. Some pundits are arguing that the Supreme Court election could have a significant impact on the presidential election because they will soon make a decision on the voter rolls case that was referenced earlier. Wisconsin is viewed as an important state to win in the upcoming presidential election because the race was so close in 2016.

What the decision to continue with the election illustrates is that Republicans in Wisconsin decided that maintaining power is more important than the health of its citizens. Other states have adjusted their electoral process in response to our health crisis.

Throughout history moments of crisis have been exploited by those in power to further their own interests and implement major reforms. It is important that the nonprofit sector pay attention to the significant policy decisions that are being enacted in order to ensure that our communities are not being left behind. This is a crucial year for our democracy and nonprofits must step up to meet the challenges. The sector needs to ensure that people’s basic needs are being met during this crisis while continuing their advocacy and policy work because these decisions have significant implications for the future of our planet, our nations, our communities, and our families.—Benjamin Martinez

Correction: This article has been changed from its initial release, where it went out with the wrong headline. NPQ regrets the error.