On Monday afternoon, just hours before polls were to open for the Wisconsin presidential primary and state and local elections, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order suspending in-person voting for the April 7 spring election. It was an unprecedented act. But these are unprecedented times, and the governor did what was necessary to protect public health and democracy.
Unfortunately, Republican leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature and their political cronies on the Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked the Democratic governor's order.
Responding to widespread concern that going ahead with in-person voting would put people’s lives at risk in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the governor sought to move in-person voting to June 9, while allowing absentee voting to continue. The governor had tried to work with Republicans but they refused.
Finally, a frustrated Evers announced, "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 — just as the rest of us are — to help keep people healthy and safe. But as municipalities are consolidating polling locations, and absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing. The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order today.”
Make no mistake, Evers was acting within his authority to protect Wisconsinites.
There are some issues that ought to be beyond partisanship and ideology, and this is one of them. As Jay Heck, the leader of Common Cause in Wisconsin, explained, the governor recognized that the time had come to “place partisan political considerations aside and unite in support of protecting Wisconsin citizens and avert a public health catastrophe.”
The outlines of that potential catastrophe were evident on Monday.
I was one of the lucky ones who was able to apply for, obtain and cast an absentee ballot before Election Day. But that wasn’t the case for hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites. As Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes Conway explained Monday afternoon, “While absentee voting does alleviate in-person voting pressure, the backlogs clerks’ offices are facing from overwhelming demand (raised the prospect) that thousands of people asking to vote absentee may not receive their ballots in time.”
The mayor pointed that the Madison clerk’s office had sent out 87,323 absentee ballots. But she also noted that the office had received only around 54% of them back by late Monday, as compared with 92% that were received back for the April 2016 presidential primary and local elections.
“It’s clear,” she said, “that the backlog in issuing ballots has impacted voters’ abilities to return them by April 7.”
What that meant was that, for a substantial portion of the electorate, Election Day presented a harsh choice. Those who had applied for absentee ballots but not yet received them, and those who had not applied for an absentee ballot by last Friday’s deadline, were forced to decide whether to risk exposure to the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote.
That was an unreasonable demand. Outlining the awful calculus, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said, “If we hold this election, it is a 100% certainty that we will have more transmission than we otherwise would, and that will lead to more loss of life.”
For that reason, civil rights and voting rights groups, and the mayors of Wisconsin’s largest cities, pleaded with the governor to intervene.
The governor went out of his way to find common ground with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Yet, the Republicans mocked the governor’s efforts to protect the health and safety of Wisconsinites who, by a 51–44 margin in the latest Marquette University Law School poll, favored postponing the election.
When Evers called a special session of the legislature for Saturday, Vos and Fitzgerald refused to take the issue seriously. They took the Assembly and the Senate in an out of session in a matter of seconds. Their obstruction in a time of emergency — when epidemiologists were urging postponement — was not a matter of ideology or partisanship. Democratic and Republican leaders, conservatives and liberals, in more than a dozen other states have agreed to election delays since the COVID-19 crisis began.
Vos and Fitzgerald threw tantrums at a point when everyone else was working to save lives, keep people healthy, stabilize the economy and preserve democracy. And the judicial activists on the high court sided with these legislative charlatans.
No one should imagine that Vos, Fitzgerald and their judicial cronies acted as conservatives.
Honest conservatives have already acted to postpone elections. Three weeks ago, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made the same choice that Evers made — to suspend in-person voting on the eve of his state’s primaries. DeWine, a conservative Republican, announced on March 16, “During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus.”
DeWine put partisan and ideological considerations aside and did the right thing, so that Ohioans would not have to choose between maintaining their health and casting their ballots. And the Ohio Supreme Court backed him up.
That's what should have happened in Wisconsin. Tony Evers did his part. Vos, Fitzgerald and the Supreme Court majority failed us.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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