Wisconsin’s In-Person Voting Threatens Health and Democracy

Wisconsin’s In-Person Voting Threatens Health and Democracy

Wisconsin’s In-Person Voting Threatens Health and Democracy

Officials can protect voters by adopting a plan for extended absentee balloting.


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On Monday afternoon, with just hours to go before polls were to open, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order suspending in-person voting for the state’s April 7 spring election. But his emergency order was upended before the afternoon was done when the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted 4-2 to block the governor's move and reinstate the election as scheduled. 

Evers had sought to move in-person voting to June 9, 2020, while declaring that all ballots already cast in the spring election will remain valid and will be tallied in conjunction with the new in-person voting date. The governor acted after Republican legislators refused to work with him to address concerns about holding an election as the coronavirus spreads, saying, “I have been asking everyone to do their part to help keep our families, our neighbors, and our communities safe, and I had hoped that the Legislature would do its part.… I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing.”

Republican legislative leaders immediately objected to the emergency order and the court majority sided with them. —John Nichols

I just cast my absentee ballot for Wisconsin’s April 7 election. But hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who did not request an absentee ballot by Friday will be forced on Tuesday to decide whether to risk their health and safety to exercise their right to vote.

That is an unreasonable demand to make of a substantial portion of the state’s electorate. Outlining the blunt calculus of the moment, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said, “If we hold this election, it is a 100 percent certainty that we will have more transmission than we otherwise would, and that will lead to more loss of life.”

Yet, as the hours tick away toward election day in the last state that is still proposing to vote rather than postpone in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, a debate is raging about how to proceed. Civil rights groups and voting rights groups and the mayors of Wisconsin’s largest cities are pleading for officials to cancel Tuesday’s in-person voting.

Because so many Wisconsin poll workers have decided for sound public health reasons to remain at home rather than work at polling places on April 7, the number of locations where ballots can be cast has been dramatically reduced—creating confusion and uncertainty that undermine the basic premises of a free and fair election.

And when people are being told to stay at home in order to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, they simply should not be given a conflicting message to go out, stand in lines, and interact with poll workers in order to cast a ballot.

Democratic and Republican leaders in more than a dozen other states have agreed to election delays—with many rescheduling presidential primaries and state elections for June 2. Yet the Republicans who control the Wisconsin legislature have blocked moves to address the Covid-19 threat in Wisconsin. So far, Democratic Governor Tony Evers has refused to act unilaterally to protect public health and democracy—despite the fact that by a 51–44 margin in the latest Marquette Law School poll, voters have indicated that they favor postponing the election.

The state is now at the critical point for deciding what to do, and the governor and his administration must act—in conjunction with the Legislature, if possible; on their own, if necessary. The mayors of Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, La Crosse, Oshkosh, Wauwatosa, and Viroqua have formally asked Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm to use emergency powers to stop in-person voting Tuesday—explaining, “We need you to step up and stop the State of Wisconsin from putting hundreds of thousands of citizens at risk.”

James Conway, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin, has told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “It just seems really irresponsible to make this one giant exception. From a public health stand, it’s both the wrong message and it’s taking an enormous gamble.”

The stalemate must be broken.

So let’s talk about an alternative to postponement that should be acceptable to everyone: extending the election.

US District Judge William Conley has offered a rough outline for how to go forward. After reviewing lawsuits seeking a delay in the April 7 balloting, the judge went to the extraordinary length of pointing out last week that “the state of Wisconsin is ignoring [public health] data and endangering its public” when he urged postponement of voting. The judge complained that “Wisconsin’s Legislature and governor are not willing to step up and say there’s a public health crisis and make it absolutely clear that we should not be allowing poll workers and voters to congregate on April 7.”

While Judge Conley said he did not have the authority to delay the election, he did take a few steps to mitigate the damage to democracy. He extended absentee voting to deal with the crush of last-minute requests for an alternative to in-person voting in Tuesday’s scheduled Democratic and Republican presidential primaries and nonpartisan contests for the state Supreme Court and county and municipal posts. He ordered the state to let voters request absentee ballots until 5 pm Friday, April 3. Because it will take time to process those requests, get ballots mailed to voters, and get them returned, the judge also ordered election officials to count absentee ballots received by 4 pm on Monday, April 13—six days after the former deadline of 8 pm on Tuesday. Critically, the judge’s order says that ballots do not have to be postmarked on a particular day, so long as clerks get them by the 13th.

What Judge Conley ordered was not a delay but a brief extension. That is the beginning of a credible response, but it’s insufficient.

Wisconsinites who did not request absentee ballots by April 3 now have no option except in-person voting. But communities across the state do not have enough poll workers to open regular polling places. In Milwaukee, for instance, the plan is to reduce the number of polling places from 180 to 5.

“Milwaukee has over 595,000 people and five places to vote,” says union activist Randy Bryce. State Representative David Bowen of Milwaukee says, “I am not confident that we have the proper things in place to get people to know they don’t have to choose between their health and voting. Being socially distant with 5,000 people—how is that going to be possible?”

It won’t be possible. The plan to go forward with in-person voting is unworkable by any democratic standard that would be considered reasonable.

Indeed, suggests the Rev. Jesse Jackson, it is a form of voter suppression in a city with substantial African American and Latino populations.

What to do? Don’t ask voters to cast ballots on Tuesday. Instead, further extend the period for requesting and casting absentee ballots so that voters do not have to risk getting a deadly disease in order to vote in the presidential primaries and state and local elections.

On Friday, Governor Evers proposed essentially that when he signed an Executive Order calling on the legislature to go into special session to take up changes to the upcoming spring election. “I’m asking the Legislature to take up legislation allowing an all-mail election, to send a ballot to every registered voter who has not already requested one by May 19, and to extend the time for those ballots to be received to May 26,” he said.

That’s not a postponement. That’s an extension that would:

  • Protect polls workers and voters in a time of pandemic.
  • Allow clerks to efficiently process absentee ballot requests that they already have.
  • Allow voters and potential voters who have not already done so to learn about and participate in the absentee voting process.
  • Ensure that Wisconsin has a fair and free high-turnout election.

On Saturday, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald—who had already challenged Judge Conley’s order—rejected the governor’s proposal. They opened and closed the special session in a matter of seconds. That inspired the Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler to write, “The whole country should tune in to what Republicans are doing now in Wisconsin. It’s a preview of how they’ll politically weaponize Coronavirus on a national scale.”

Hopefully, Wikler is wrong. Hopefully, Vos and Fitzgerald will reconsider. There is still time to do so—but not much. The Republican governor of Ohio shut down in-person voting just hours before that state’s March 17 primary and extended mail voting until April 28.

Vos and Fitzgerald can negotiate with the governor. But they have to recognize that proceeding with in-person voting on Tuesday is unsafe and undemocratic.

If they fail to reconsider, the governor should order the extension that he has proposed. In a memorandum issued Thursday, Madison City Attorney Michael May explained that Evers is empowered to “authorize and implement all emergency measures necessary to control communicable diseases.”

The governor does not have to postpone the election. But, one way or another, he must extend it.

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