How Wisconsin’s election disenfranchised voters

Wisconsin held the first in-person election on Tuesday in the middle of the US coronavirus outbreak. In some precincts, it was an event plagued by hours-long waits and a tremendous shortage of both polling workers and stations, prompting civil- and voting-rights activists to call the legitimacy of the election into question before polls even closed.

State Republicans on Monday won a recent and bitter back-and-forth with Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on whether to postpone the election and further expand absentee ballot access. The Republican-majority state Supreme Court ruled the election would go ahead on April 7 as planned, and a separate US Supreme Court ruling late Monday night meant no extension for absentee ballots — effectively cutting many voters out of the process. Election results are expected to come in by next Monday.

This pileup of last-minute changes meant many voters had to make a choice: risk getting sick while exercising their constitutional right to vote in person, or stay home and safe without voting.

Where you live determined how your Election Day experience went. The epicenter of the long lines and lack of polling stations appeared to be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, which is located in a county that’s home to nearly 70 percent of the state’s African American residents.

“For black people in Milwaukee, the fear is significant,” said Rashad Robinson, a spokesperson for Color of Change, of the calculus voters were making. “The black community in Milwaukee is facing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic — accounting for over half of coronavirus cases and 81 percent of related deaths.”

The lack of available poll workers on Election Day meant the number of polling places in Milwaukee shrank from 180 to just five for a city of about 592,000, according to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Molly Beck. In the state capitol of Madison — which has less than half Milwaukee’s population — there were 66 polling places open, Beck pointed out. Madison and other areas also had more locations with drive-through voting.

Residents wait in a long line to vote outside the Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

“The WI legislature, the state Supreme Court & the U.S. Supreme Court consigned these U.S. citizens to risking their lives to exercise their right to vote today,” tweeted Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Today’s election is now legal, but it is democratically & morally illegitimate.”

Wisconsin’s decision to hold an election in the midst of a deadly pandemic could have profound consequences on American elections, far more than the state’s results. Especially if voters get sick from in-person voting, it raises the question of how states should be preparing for November’s general election, where turnout will likely be much higher.

“The aftermath of what Wisconsin Republicans just made happen might change the politics of continuing with this kind of insanity,” said Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Wisconsin’s on-again, off-again, on-again Election Day, briefly explained

Wisconsin is the lone state so far to proceed with a scheduled election since the coronavirus outbreak got serious in the US. Many other governors, Republican and Democrat alike, have postponed their elections to not put voters or poll workers in imminent danger of getting the virus.

A few weeks ago, Evers and Republican leadership in the state legislature actually agreed they would continue to hold an in-person election on April 7 and encourage more people to sign up for absentee ballots. But as the weeks progressed and local election officials told state leaders they couldn’t hold an in-person election under social distancing orders, Evers wanted to postpone. Republican leaders did not.

“As the weeks wore on, the legislature dug into that position, allowing no accommodations, no flexibility for voters, and the governor slowly moved to the opposite side,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden told Vox.

Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicked off on April 7 despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Derek Henkle/AFP/Getty Images

Evers tried to move the date to June 9, first by calling a special legislative session this weekend and then through executive order on Monday night. Both times, he was overruled by Wisconsin Republicans in the state legislature and the state Supreme Court.

Republican leaders in the state legislature gaveled out of the weekend special session almost immediately after it was convened. Then on Monday night, Republicans appealed Evers’s executive order, saying the governor was “defying numerous state-election statutes and his countless previous statements that he clearly lacks legal authority to cancel tomorrow’s election,” and the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court agreed with them.

Evers and Wisconsin Democrats were dealt another blow by the US Supreme Court on Monday. The court’s conservative majority handed down a 5-4 decision that required mail-in ballots in Wisconsin to be postmarked by April 7, overruling a lower federal court ruling that had allowed those ballots to be postmarked and received by April 13.

“I think Democrats are going to wash their memories and not recall Evers and Republicans were on the same page a few weeks ago,” Burden said.

The practical effect of this back-and-forth is the election went forward with far fewer polling places and poll workers in some cities. In addition to Milwaukee’s number of polling places being reduced from 180 to five, the nearby city of Waukesha (home to 72,000 people) had just one polling place open. There were numerous reports of long lines as voters tried to social distance, and some people waiting in line for hours to cast their ballot.

Notably, one of the most closely watched races taking place Tuesday is also one that Republicans have been eyeing for some time. The statewide race is for a seat on the state Supreme Court, which both Trump-endorsed Republican Daniel Kelly and Democrat Jill Karofsky are currently competing for. Whoever wins will secure a 10-year term in the state’s highest court, which is also poised to review a voting rights case that could lead to the removal of 200,000 people from the states’ voter rolls.

Voters who are sick — or afraid of becoming sick — will be unable to vote unless they received mail-in ballots and get them sent by April 7. And numerous people who requested an absentee ballot did not receive one, the New York Times reports.

“If you’re in line before the polls close you get to vote. Well, how about you have your request in for your absentee ballot and you don’t get it?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-author of vote-by-mail legislation, told Vox in an interview Tuesday. “That is just wrong.”

Residents wait in a long line to vote outside the Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

The Wisconsin election was not equal for all voters; those with access to cars and transportation could drive to the polls and in some instances safely vote from their vehicles. And information about such options wasn’t exactly clear. Places like Milwaukee offered curbside voting, but this effort wasn’t effectively communicated to voters, according to Dakota Hall, the executive director of Leaders Igniting Transformation, an advocacy group aimed at promoting voting rights.

The lack of information and the last-minute nature of the election changes had a concrete effect on voters’ decisions to go to the polls. Shavonda, a Wisconsin voter who declined to share her last name, said that she was worried about the risk of physically going to a crowded location given the fact that she has asthma. “It’s too high-risk for me to go out to go to polling places,” she told Vox.

What this means for the legitimacy of the election

The haphazard implementation of this election means that thousands of voters who were interested in participating will effectively be disenfranchised.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser reported, many voters who had requested absentee ballots had yet to receive them as of Monday evening, meaning that people probably wouldn’t be able to postmark them by the required Tuesday, April 7, deadline. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, roughly 408,000 absentee ballots still hadn’t been returned across the state as of Tuesday morning.

This dynamic suggests that those who weren’t able to get and mail in their ballots, and those who couldn’t physically participate out of concerns for their health, simply wouldn’t be able to engage in this election at all. Absentee ballots in Wisconsin also require a witness to sign the ballot, a requirement that’s incredibly limiting during the current public health crisis, where people are being advised to stay away from others.

A woman votes from her car in a Democratic presidential primary election at a drive-up polling place set up outside the Hamilton High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

“Voters are forced to make an impossible decision today: They are choosing between their health and losing their right to vote,” Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told reporters on a conference call.

The handling of Tuesday’s primary is expected to hurt specific subsets of voters disproportionately, including black voters, older voters, and voters with disabilities.

“Suppressing, limiting, and outright denying the vote to black citizens is a dark American tradition, but this is sadly one of the most egregious examples we’ve seen so far this century,” said Robinson.

ACLU voting rights campaign strategist Molly McGrath notes that the effects of the pandemic have only further exacerbated existing voter suppression efforts in the state.

“Let’s be totally clear: Voter suppression was happening in Wisconsin before Covid-19, through onerous voter ID requirements, gerrymandering, and attempted cuts to early voting,” she told Vox. “Due to the pandemic, the disparities of voter suppression have reared their ugly heads right in our faces.”

What it means for vote-by-mail efforts in the future

Democrats in Congress say Wisconsin’s elections are a perfect demonstration of the need for expanded voting by mail in every state — at the very least in time for the November general election.

“Wisconsin is a messy dress rehearsal for what will happen in November if we don’t act,” said McGrath.

This effort is being spearheaded in the Senate by Sens. Klobuchar and Ron Wyden (D-OR), and House Democrats are also eager to enact reforms. Klobuchar and Wyden helped secure $400 million in Congress’s recent coronavirus emergency funding package to help states start or expand their vote-by-mail capacity. Each state will get at least $3 million.

But the two senators want to take that much further by requiring that states set up contingency plans for voting by mail before the fall election, giving voters more choice and flexibility, and recruiting younger poll workers to protect older folks who volunteer at the polls. That could take each state anywhere from $2 billion to $4 billion to do well, experts estimate.

A woman casts her ballot on a voting machine at Hamilton High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

Wisconsin could be a critical moment for the senators to make their case for voting-by-mail reforms a matter of serious urgency, Klobuchar told Vox. With multiple governors of both parties looking for an alternative, she hopes it will convince congressional Republicans to make changes.

“I think this could be a game changer for reforming some of our election systems,” she said. “It’s not the game changer we wanted.”

Despite the backing of officials from both parties on the state level, congressional Republicans — and President Donald Trump — have staunchly opposed the effort. They’ve argued that it could open the door to election fraud and weaken Republicans’ ability to win. “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said recently of a Democratic effort that pushed voting by mail.

“Some have made very clear that they are concerned that increased voting affects their candidacies, which says a lot,” says Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Klobuchar and Wyden are pushing that more money to expand voting by mail be put into the next coronavirus funding package Congress will consider in the coming weeks. But Burden says Wisconsin shows they need buy-in from state lawmakers of both parties for it to really work.

“Republicans generally don’t want the federal government to get involved at all,” Burden said. “There’s a huge set of things that have to happen behind the scenes to make it possible. States are going in that direction, there’s just going to be a lot of variability in how far they go and how successful they are in pulling it off.”