Last week’s election in Wisconsin has caused a national uproar. There were no absolutely crucial elections on the ballot. The Democratic primary between Biden and Sanders was an afterthought. There were only a few statewide races. Democratic Governor Tony Evers tried to postpone the election or mail absentee ballots to every voter. Because the Republican-dominated state legislature, state Supreme Court and US Supreme Court all insisted that elections be held on the scheduled date, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters were forced to violate the statewide stay-at-home order to cast a ballot. In Milwaukee, hundreds of poll workers called in sick or refused to work, so only 5 of 180 voting sites were open. Masked voters waited in lines for hours. In a month, we’ll know the human toll of this democratic exercise. Far beyond the importance of the results, the competing visions of democracy provoke a question rarely asked in America: should we risk our lives to vote?
Wisconsin is a closely contested state. Trump won it by less than 23,000 votes in 2016, less than 1%. Democrats won statewide races in 2018 for Governor and Attorney General by 1%. Every vote matters.
The story of how the Wisconsin election was conducted is remarkably complicated and profoundly partisan. Wisconsin is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. After the 2010 census, Republicans drew new legislative lines that guaranteed them political control. In 2018, Democratic candidates for the state legislature won 53% of the votes, but only one-third of the seats.
The discussions about this election actually began in 2018, right after Tony Evers ousted Scott Walker as Governor and the Democrats won other statewide victories. Looking far into the future, Wisconsin Republicans discussed separating the re-election of conservative state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly from the Democratic primary election, because they feared large Democratic turnout would imperil his chances. Those discussions went nowhere, possibly because holding an additional statewide election would have cost millions of dollars.
Of the 11 states which had scheduled elections in April, all but Wisconsin postponed them or shifted to mailed absentee voting. The Republican legislature in Wisconsin was nevertheless planning to hold the election as scheduled. A week before the election day, Democrats challenged that plan in federal court, and suggested that the deadline for mail-in ballots be extended another week, because of the huge surge in absentee ballots. The federal judge agreed. Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court in Washington, whose conservative majority overturned that ruling hours before the election, leading to statewide confusion about exactly when mail-in ballots needed to be postmarked.
Thousands of potential voters never received absentee ballot because of backlogs in processing requests, thousands were unable to insure that their mailed ballots arrived in time.
Thousands of potential voters never received absentee ballot because of backlogs in processing requests, thousands were unable to insure that their mailed ballots arrived in time, and thousands simply stayed away from in-person voting because of their fears of infection.
The results were announced yesterday, delayed by a court order that extended the deadline for returning absentee ballots. Democratic challenger Jill Karofsky won a resounding victory over Kelly 55% to 45%. In local elections across the state, progressive candidates and school funding referenda won victories.
The partisan composition of the Wisconsin Supreme Court will have significant consequences for future state elections. Republicans have sought to purge the registrations of 200,000 voters, mostly in Democratic regions of the state, because of possible confusion about their addresses. A circuit court in January ordered the purge to happen, but an appeals court blocked that order. The state Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 on getting involved, but the issue will come up again.
Furthermore, the gerrymandered Republican legislature will have control over the drawing of new election maps after this year’s census. Democratic Governor Evers could veto gerrymandered maps. Then the conflict could be decided by the state Supreme Court.
The election of a state supreme court judge is only one small data point in the effort to predict what might happen in November across the nation. But it is the most recent evidence we have, and it might show something about the influence of the coronavirus pandemic on voting.
Of course, November is about Trump. Trump endorsed Kelly in January and again since then. On the day of the election, he claimed that his most recent tweeted endorsement the day before had caused the Democrats to panic and try to move the election. Just another silly lie from Trump.
This election falls into line with a host of statewide elections across the country since 2018, which show a rising tide of Democratic votes and failures of Trump endorsements. There are other local explanations for this particular result, as there are for every other recent election. But the data points are accumulating.
That’s a lot of words about one state election. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Maybe. It has been hard to find any good news lately. Trump gets worse every day. The presidential election is 7 months away. So please excuse me for grasping at this straw.
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