The Tuesday election in Wisconsin was the first of the COVID-19 era. The vote included the Democratic primary and a seat on the state supreme court, and was held despite strong public pressure to postpone. The Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, called a special meeting of the state assembly to push back the elections, but within seconds, the Republican-controlled assembly voted to hold the election at the originally slated time. Before this, the Governor had proposed that everyone in the state be mailed an absentee ballot, which was also rejected by the assembly on strict party lines. Evers also issued an executive order to delay the election, but the state supreme court, again on strict party lines, rescinded the order.
Since most polling stations will be closed and all will be infection risks, Democrats pushed a federal judge to extend the deadline to submit mail in ballots from April 7 to April 13. The state has already received too many ballot requests to mail out in the originally allotted time, so many voters will not receive their ballots even by the new deadline of the 13th. However, Republicans appealed this to the Supreme Court, and, again on party lines, the court rejected the extension. In her dissenting opinion, Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted that as of Monday, 12,000 requested ballots had not even been mailed out. With post offices on skeleton crews, it is likely many others did not arrive at their destinations by election day.
The result was an election that made voting not only difficult, but dangerous.
As of April 4, according to law professor Richard Hasen, “only 38% of voters who had requested an absentee ballot in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County had returned one, compared with over 56% of absentee voters in nearby Republican-leaning Waukesha County.”
Across the state, through a partial disenfranchisement, many citizens were put in unsafe positions to vote. Many did not receive ballots in time, and those who did struggled to find witnesses for them due to social distancing. These voters were then forced to go to the physical polls, a course of action made incredibly daunting by the threat of the virus. This is especially true in Milwaukee, where the number of polling stations dropped from the usual 180 to a mere five, forcing people to wait hours before casting their vote.
This is not just unsafe—this is an illegitimate election. An election in which voting is dangerous, in which many citizens in good standing have been effectively disenfranchised, and in which an undue burden was put on voters by the reduction in the number of polling stations, is not an election the United Nations would accept. And this was all perfectly avoidable. There is nothing unconstitutional about delaying an election during a crisis. States have broad freedom to run their elections as they wish, and many other states have postponed similar elections in the last few months. However, Wisconsin Republicans fought tooth and nail against all efforts to make this election safer or more democratic. This was an avoidable fiasco.
The reason why this undemocratic perversion of democracy was allowed to take place is obvious. The recent elections are a perfect example of the continual voter suppression practiced by the Republican party of Wisconsin. Wisconsin, at present, is one of the least democratically apportioned states in the union. In the 2018 elections, Democrats got 55% of votes cast for the state assembly, but only 35 out of 99 seats. The unfair electoral results common in Wisconsin are the reason why Republicans were so devoted to winning this most recent election. If they lose the state supreme court seat, the current district plans are likely to be struck down as undemocratic. Since cities have more crowded polling stations, urbanites and college towns generally see more voting by mail, and in general Democrats are more actively social distancing, having the election right now while restricting mail-in voting greatly increases the GOP’s chance of getting away with their sleazy practices.
This skew between the popular vote and election results is only going to get more severe. These same shady electoral practices are also occurring at the national level, creating an uneven playing field for voters. As the Democrats become a more metropolitan party and the Republicans more rural, old political havens are changing. Some large historically Republican states like Texas are slowly veering blue while the Republican party is making inroads in smaller but historically Democratic states like Iowa and Wisconsin. As Republicans collect more rural states with disproportionate amounts of electoral power, the gap between who wins the popular vote and who wins the electoral college grows. As recently as 2012, there was significant speculation that Obama could lose the popular vote but win the electoral college, but the shoe is now squarely on the other foot. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes but lost the electoral college by 15%, and it is projected that Joe Biden will need to win the popular vote by about 3% to win the election. Since more and more presidential elections are decided by 2-3% margins, the number of inversions between the vote and the electoral college will only increase.
At the federal level there is some legitimacy to this. America was established to represent states, not only individuals. But a lack of democracy at the state level is a very different story. America may be a republic, not a democracy, but lack of democracy in Wisconsin or North Carolina is simply a result of corruption and power grabbing. This is a disaster, and it’s become much more severe in recent years. In 2010, Republicans scored landslide victories, as usually happens to the opposition party after bold legislative moves at the federal level, such as Obamacare. The same happened in 2018 after the Trump tax cuts. But the difference is that as a result of their 2010 victory, the GOP began a systematic effort to redistrict the entire country so that Democrats wouldn’t be able to win elections. The one race that can’t be gerrymandered is the governor’s seat, so when a Democrat recently became governor of North Carolina, the state assembly tried to take his powers away. The same is expected to happen in Wisconsin. In 2020, the state assembly will draw up new borders, but the governor will likely veto it, as they will be heavily gerrymandered. The assembly can overcome the veto by changing the law such that solely the assembly has power over districting, but they’ll need a compliant state supreme court to do it, ergo the undemocratic election amidst the pandemic.
It is not clear what can be done about this, but even if anything can be done, it is certain that nothing will be. After all, election rules are broadly up to the states. The federal government and the supreme court have intervened in state elections before, notably to prevent the disenfranchisement of black citizens in the 1960s, but that was a stretch of the constitution, and certainly not something which will be matched by the Roberts court. The response has to come from states, but it won’t. Gerrymandering would have to be ended by the party in power, so parties are playing less honestly than ever before, especially the Republican party. After Democratic victories in 2018, many states hired independent redistricting commissions to limit the direct influence of politicians over districts. But, as we just saw in Wisconsin, the Republican party will do absolutely anything to keep control.
Tom Hanes is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at email@example.com