Of all the states struggling to hold elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it might make sense to pay special attention to Wisconsin, which is plowing ahead with an April 7 presidential and local government primary despite all sorts of legal and logistical problems. This is the state, after all, that many analysts think could decide the presidential contest in November. And if COVID-19 still haunts voters in the fall, Wisconsin’s past heavy reliance on in-person voting (only 6 percent of ballots were cast by mail in the 2018 midterms there) could make it a source of massive controversy if turnout patterns are strange.
Wisconsin is one of the 24 states that don’t require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot by mail, but do require that voters proactively request one. Heading toward April 7, an unprecedented number of voters are doing just that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
As of March 16, 134,556 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. By March 19, that grew to 315,429. By March 23, it grew to 482,321. As of Thursday, the total was 699,431.
That’s compared to 170,000 mail ballots cast in 2018. And it’s impossible at this point to tell how this will affect the shape of the electorate or the speed and fairness of vote counting:
[T]his shift poses all sorts of questions and problems. It is potentially overloading a system never designed for mail voting. It is likely to overwhelm all the local election clerks who must process and eventually count these ballots.
Turnout will undoubtedly be depressed by the fact that people can’t and won’t vote en masse at the polls on election day. That raises fairness issues because some types of voters may be less likely to vote by mail (younger voters, lower-income voters) than others.
And even though the decision to move ahead with this primary was bipartisan (Democratic governor Tony Evers and the legislature’s Republican leadership), there are multiple fears the situation could distort the outcome:
[W]e could also end up with people on both sides questioning the legitimacy of the election. Some Democrats say the rules requiring voter IDs and the deadlines for voting need to be loosened. Republicans are complaining that local officials in Milwaukee and Madison are allowing voters to cast absentee ballots without providing IDs.
As you may remember, Wisconsin has for a decade been ground zero for partisan polarization. And the primary is already the subject of at least four lawsuits seeking to modify or delay or postpone the event:
[T[he Democratic National Committee sued last week to try to extend absentee voting. That resulted in an order that reinstated online voter registration until March 30 …
One of the new lawsuits, led by voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, seeks to put off the election for weeks or months. It’s in line with a lawsuit Green Bay’s clerk filed this week to postpone the election …
[Souls to the Polls] argued problems conducting the election would fall hardest on minorities and would result in violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.
On top of everything else, a sudden shift to voting by mail could significantly slow down the vote count and publication of results. Maybe that’s no biggie on April 7, but if the presidential general election comes down to Wisconsin and the count takes days, you can imagine the wild conspiracy theories that will take wing.
Wisconsin is not the only state trying to hold an April primary. As you may recall, Ohio governor Mike DeWine managed to halt his state’s presidential and down-ballot March 17 primary at the last minute on murky legal grounds; Secretary of State Frank LaRose subsequently postponed the primary until June 2, but legislators protested he did not have the authority to do so, and ordered an earlier primary date as part of a larger coronavirus response bill, which DeWine will sign, as an Ohio TV station reports:
Ohio will hold a mail-only primary until April 28 after coronavirus concerns delayed in-person voting earlier this month.
The primary election rules are part of sweeping legislation Ohio’s House and Senate unanimously passed Wednesday to help the state weather the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to sign the package on Friday morning, House Speaker Larry Householder tells FOX19 NOW.
Ohio is another state where you have to proactively request an absentee ballot, and the new law doesn’t change that, as Politico reports:
The new law instructs LaRose’s office to send a postcard to every registered voter in the state to notify them of “the methods by which the elector may obtain an application for absent voter’s ballots,” along with relevant deadlines. But the statute does not actually mail every voter an absentee ballot request.
“Please know that if I could send an absentee request to every voter in this primary I would,” LaRose said in a tweet. “Unfortunately [state regulations] prohibits me from doing so and [this bill] did not address that.”
What the circumstances really call for is mailing an actual ballot to registered voters, the way all-mail-voting jurisdictions do (since this is an all-mail-ballot election). But that’s not happening, which is why voting-rights organizations are up in arms at the current plans:
A petition circulated by the state affiliate of the League of Women Voters called for a primary no earlier than mid-May and urged the voter registration deadline to be extended until 30 days before the primary.
If legal and political protests don’t stop the April 28 primary, it could produce slow returns, since Ohio is accepting ballots postmarked by April 27 and received by May 8.
The situation in both Wisconsin and Ohio shows why it would have really been a good idea for Congress, in its $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, to have set some national rules for elections held this year and given state and local election officials the resources to carry them out. The $400 million being extended without any mandate for its use could just subsidize more Election Day confusion.