Should I vote or should I protect my health? That was the stark choice that Wisconsin voters faced on Tuesday – thanks to their elected state representatives. Like much of the rest of the nation, Wisconsin is under a statewide stay-at-home order. The order is designed to slow the spread of a disease that has already sickened nearly half a million Americans and taken the lives of 13,000.
Given the gravity of the threat, the mayors of Wisconsin’s 10 largest cities urged the state to delay the Tuesday election – lest the state put “hundreds of thousands of citizens at risk by requiring them to vote at the polls while this ugly pandemic spreads”. Nearly a dozen other states had already chosen to postpone their primaries given the national state of emergency. Invoking his emergency powers, the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, likewise sought to delay the election until early June.
But Wisconsin said no. In a decision staggering in its cynicism and recklessness, the Republican-controlled state legislature flatly refused to delay the election. What did they hope to gain?
Yes, there was the Democratic primary, but that was of little concern to the Republican lawmakers. Of great concern, however, was Tuesday’s vote in a state supreme court contest. This vote pitted the sitting state supreme court justice Daniel Kelly, a strong conservative voice on the bench, against Jill Karofsky, a lower court judge supported by progressives.
Never mind that America is alone among advanced democracies in permitting many state judges to be elected officials. In this case, Republican lawmakers hoped that by suppressing the urban vote, they would help Kelly’s re-election bid. This, in itself, was nothing new; suppressing the vote of urban and minority citizens has emerged as staple of Republican politics in recent years.
Unusual here was only the brazen willingness to use a pandemic – rather, than say, voter IDs – as the means of suppression. And so Republican lawmakers forced urban voters into a Hobson’s choice: head to one of the few available polling stations – in Milwaukee only five of 180 designated polling stations were open – and risk exposure to Covid-19, or follow the state’s stay-at-home order.
Still, much of the chaos and hardship could have been avoided had the state chosen to rely more heavily on absentee ballots. Such ballots permit citizens to vote by mail, and so Wisconsin voters could have had their voice heard without sacrificing their health. But here again Republican lawmakers said no, racing to the US supreme court to bar an extended reliance on absentee ballots.
On Monday, in a per curiam decision – that is, a decision arrived at without full argument and briefing – the supreme court refused to extend by a week the deadline by which an absentee ballot could be postmarked. Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh cast the issue before the court as “a narrow, technical question about the absentee ballot process,” but the fact that the decision broke 5-4 along the court’s sharp ideological divide belies Kavanaugh’s characterization.
Indeed, in her passionate dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that the court’s decision “will result in massive disenfranchisement” – which of course is exactly what Wisconsin Republicans hoped for in taking their case to court.
All this is as shocking as it is unsurprising. Wisconsin, once a thriving crucible of progressive politics, has turned into a vanguard of the Republican assault on democracy. Remember that the commanding Republican advantage in the state assembly is itself a creature of grotesque gerrymandering: despite winning only 46% of the state vote in 2018, state Republicans succeeded in capturing 66 of the 99 seats in the state assembly. Recall, too, that no sooner had Tony Evers secured the governorship in 2018, then this same gerrymandered body raced to strip the newly elected Democrat of powers long enjoyed by the state’s chief executive.
Tuesday, then, presented a scene as chaotic and alarming as it was inspiring. Intrepid poll workers, outfitted in jerry-rigged Hazmat suits, dutifully processed ballots. Senior citizens in masks stood for hours in snaking lines, waiting to vote.
It’s too early to tell whether Wisconsin Republicans will be rewarded in their willingness to use a public health emergency to extract a narrow partisan advantage. The results of Tuesday’s vote will not be announced until 13 April. But the damage done to American democracy is all too visible. And the Wisconsin experience might well be a harbinger of things to come in November 2020.
Lawrence Douglas is the James J Grosfeld professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College and a contributing opinion writer for Guardian US. His newest book, Will He Go? Trump and Looming Election Meltdown in 2020, will appear in May