2020 elections

After Its Disturbing Election Day, What Happens Next in Wisconsin?

Primary Day in Milwaukee. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Unless it is exceeded by even more nightmarish scenarios later in the year, Wisconsin’s election on April 7 will go down in the history books as a low point of intensely partisan, banana-republic high jinks. Through a tag-team maneuver involving the state legislature and conservative majorities on both state and federal Supreme Courts, Republicans managed to engineer an election where in-person voting was depressed by fear of death from the coronavirus along with poll-worker shortages in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee. At least 10,000 absentee ballots cast in good faith were discarded because election officials were overwhelmed by requests. Never has the abiding Republican satisfaction with a restricted franchise been more baldly evident.

But now that this scandalous event has come and gone, there is the little matter of compiling the results and mulling the implications, including the possibility of still more litigation.

We won’t have any official results until Monday, April 13. That’s because in striking down federal district court judge William Conley’s order allowing absentee ballots postmarked after April 7 but received by April 13 to be counted, SCOTUS left in place his subsequent ban on county reports of results until that latter date. Unless results somehow leak, we’ll just have to wait to learn who won the Democratic presidential primary, the much-watched Wisconsin Supreme Court contest, and the Milwaukee mayoral election (a nonpartisan election narrowed to two candidates, incumbent Tom Barrett and challenger Lena Taylor, in a February primary).

Scattered reports of total votes cast from various counties confirm the general picture of heavy absentee voting marred by failure to get all the ballots mailed out, and disparate Election Day voting patterns, with the big problem being in Milwaukee, where just five of 180 polling places were open. Here’s how the Wisconsin State Journal summed up the absentee ballot picture:

Statewide, more than 10,000 voters who didn’t receive requested absentee ballots by Election Day, according to Wisconsin Elections Commission data, were forced to make the choice between sitting out the election or voting in person and risking their health.

On top of that, there are some eligible voters whose ballots have been disqualified. During a roughly 24 hour window last week, a federal court ruling gave voters the option to certify on their absentee ballot they could not find a witness and have it counted. A later appellate court ruling invalidated that option.

Voters who used that option during the legal window were left without an option. They can’t have their absentee ballots counted, and they were barred from voting in person under Wisconsin law.

There is some evidence that early absentee voting in Wisconsin skewed Republican, while Election Day voting in Democratic Dane County (Madison) and Republican Waukesha County was a lot higher than in Milwaukee, mostly because more polling places were open:

There’s clearly plenty of material for new lawsuits if close results in key races merit them. Otherwise people in Wisconsin may simply want to forget this shameful election, even as voter-suppression practitioners examine it with malicious glee as a fine example of how to exploit tragedy and chaos for partisan gain.

After a Disturbing Election Day, Now What in Wisconsin?