It is safe to say that the Wisconsin primary was the least democratic election held in the US so far this year. That is saying something considering the abject failure that was the Iowa Democratic primary, with it’s completely incompetent organization and overdependence on untested technology. But the Wisconsin election was more of a failure of politics than logistics, organization or technology. For this, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Democrats for being anemic heroes against the Republicans, who played the perfect villains. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state's leading newspaper, put it, “Tuesday's election will be the most undemocratic in the state’s history.”
To understand what went wrong and why everything turned out as badly as it did, one must understand why the election happened at all in the first place. Why was it not postponed? Why were absentee ballots not prioritized given the pandemic? Why were Republicans so intent on making sure the Wisconsin election went forward?
To begin, we need to understand the context of the election. While the primary battle between Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was the headline event, the main show was actually taking place further down the ballot in the race for the State Supreme Court. To be clear, Wisconsin’s primary was planned to take place at the same time as their Spring elections in order to avoid having to run two elections in the span of a few weeks. That meant that when voters showed up to the polls they decided on not just Biden and Sanders, but a raft of other political contests. Of these, by far the most consequential for national-level politics was the State Supreme Court race between the conservative incumbent justice, Daniel Kelly, and a liberal challenger, Jill Karofsky. Whoever wins this race will be in a position to cast the deciding vote on a case before the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of purging 200,000 registered voters from the voter rolls.
What is so important about keeping these voters registered, other than the obvious problem with disenfranchising a significant portion of Wisconsin’s population, which only has 2.6 million people? Here’s some more background.
Wisconsin is a major battleground for national politics. It was one of the key states that Trump won in 2016 and it will be consequential again in 2020. The problem for the GOP is that it is a blue-leaning state. That means that Republicans have a vested interest in making it harder for Democrats to vote. To that end, since 2011, the state legislature has been controlled by Republicans and over the past 9 years, they have turned Wisconsin into one of the most gerrymandered states in the Union in order to dilute the voting power of the state’s Democratic and African American population. They have also enacted some of the strictest voter registration requirements in the country. To vote in Wisconsin in 2020, a voter must have a photo ID with a current address, or an ID and acceptable proof of residency. That is often an impossible bar to meet for many of the state’s poor and black voters who live in neighborhoods with some of the highest eviction rates in the country. That dynamic helped bring Trump to power in 2016 when around 17,000 people were turned away at the polls and many more were deterred due to an inability to meet the voter registration requirements. Trump won that election by just 23,000 votes. Now, the Republicans want to use these requirements to remove a further 200,000 voters from the rolls.
These numbers matter a lot in a heavily gerrymandered state like Wisconsin, where elections are often very close. On top of Trump’s close win in 2016, other elections have remained highly competitive. In the 2018 midterms, Democratic candidates won 190,000 votes more than Republican candidates for State Assembly seats but the GOP retained a nearly two-to-one advantage in the chamber. During that same election, the States’ new Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, ousted Scott Walker by less than 30,000 votes. And last year, another State Supreme Court race was decided by just 6000 votes.
On a related matter, Trump recently said that if Democrats made it easier to vote in America, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” The GOP in Wisconsin knows that. If Republicans successfully purge 200,000 voters from the Wisconsin voter rolls, they could command the state for decades to come. It will be the culmination of a decade-long effort to disenfranchise Wisconsin voters and solidify an anti-democratic takeover of the state government.
On top of gerrymandering the state and upping the requirements for voter registration, the Republicans then drastically reduced the number of polling stations in urban areas. In Milwaukee, they reduced the usual 180 sites down to 5. In Green Bay, there were only 2 sites rather than the typical 31. In Kenosha, there were 10 instead of the usual 22. And so on. To put this in perspective, Milwaukee has a population of 600,000 people. If one person entered each of the 5 polling stations every second, and the sites were open for a full 24 hours, only 86,400 people would be able to vote. Of course, with the coronavirus scaring people away, social distancing in place making lines extend for hundreds of yards if not miles, a strict ID checking procedure at the door, and polling stations only open for around 12-14 hours, only a tiny fraction of the cities population could realistically cast their votes in person. Hopefully, more were able to vote by mail, but we won’t know the real numbers for a few more days. Still, given the circumstances, turnout is bound to have been abysmally low, meaning that the results will lack even a semblance of legitimacy anyway.
So if the Republicans are the autocratic villains in this twisted democracy story, who is the hero? Who would be the savior of Wisconsin’s honor? Unfortunately for everyone involved, that illustrious title fell on the shoulders of the entirely unimpressive Tony Evers. Mr. Evers, a supremely underwhelming former state education secretary who was swept to power due to a backlash against his predecessor Scott Walker, has exhibited exactly the stereotypical qualities that make state bureaucrats so loathed. He was indecisive and laxidasical in the months leading up to the election and failed to try to postpone the election before organizing efforts had gained enough momentum that to do stop them would exact significant political cost on his office. Why exactly he dawdled is a matter of great speculation in the party at the moment. No one really knows the answer. But from reading his behavior, it is clear that he preferred to address the problem with a softer touch by leaning on existing policies and processes instead of wielding the full power of his office.
Like any good bureaucrat, Mr. Evers first looked for ways to sidestep the crisis while ruffling the fewest feathers. At first, he insisted that he did not have the power to change the election date without the consent of the state legislature, which is patently false. The Republican-controlled state legislature graciously accepted this unnecessary concession and did what any tactically astute politician would do when their enemy makes a mistake: they simply ignored the issue and allowed their enemy to continue making the mistake uninterrupted.
Next, Mr. Evers sought various other remedies, finally hitting on the idea of sending absentee ballots to all voters and extending the deadline for voters to submit absentee ballots. For a moment, as the coronavirus pandemic began making the prospect of in-person voting dangerous to public welfare, this seemed like a tenable idea to the media and voters. Absentee ballots would allow everyone to stay at home in isolation, after all. But at second glance, such a plan was clearly a nonstarter. “He had to know that there was no way to print, distribute and tally enough ballots for an absentee-only election,” said John Langeland, the Democratic Party chairman of Oneida County, in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
Thus, Mr. Evers seems to have failed one of the major political tests of his career. We won’t know whether the Republicans will have a shot at disenfranchising around 7% of the state of Wisconsin until the results of this sham election come in on April 13th. Until then the best we can do is hope and pray that the debacle won’t cost the lives of any of those brave Wisconsin residents who went to the polls who risked infection to exercise their democratic rights. They are the true heroes of this sad story.