republican party

The Wisconsin GOP Is Risking Voters’ Lives to Protect Its Minority Rule

Photo: Morry Gash/AP/Shutterstock

The Republican Party is willing to get people killed to immunize itself from the threat of democratic accountability.

Whatever happens in Wisconsin’s primary and State Supreme Court elections Tuesday, that should be the headline.

Eleven U.S. states had primaries scheduled to take place this month. Ten either postponed their elections or transitioned to all-mail-in voting, to avoid accelerating the spread of COVID-19. Wisconsin is the exception. Governor Tony Evers tried to spare the Badger State that ignominious distinction. To ensure that no Wisconsinite would be forced to choose between making their voice heard and keeping themselves safe, the Democrat called on the Republican-controlled legislature to pass a law approving the distribution of absentee ballots to every voter in the state. The Republicans refused. Evers then asked them late last week to postpone the primary. The Republicans refused.

By Monday, it was clear that Wisconsin had no means of holding a free and fair election this week. A majority of the state’s poll workers had announced that they were not willing to jeopardize their lives by greeting continuous streams of voters for hours on end (in often tightly packed and poorly ventilated quarters). In Milwaukee, election officials revealed that they only had enough staffing to open five of the city’s 180 polling locations. This development not only threatened to disenfranchise Milwaukee voters who do not live in close proximity to those five polling places, it also rendered turning out to vote even more dangerous for those who do, as a greater number of voters will be forced to crowd into a smaller number of locations. In light of these extraordinary circumstances, Evers issued an executive order Monday barring in-person voting in the April 7 election. Republicans in the legislature asked the State’s Supreme Court to block the order; all four (non-recused) conservative judges on that court ruled that the election must go on, overriding the objections of their two liberal colleagues.

Now, hundreds of Wisconsinites are standing in long lines, much closer than six feet apart, while God knows how many others have chosen to protect their health over democratic participation.

But Tuesday’s events in the Badger State are even more obscene than these details disclose. Wisconsin Democrats had hoped to partially mitigate mass disenfranchisement by extending the deadline for voters to submit their absentee ballots. As the hazards of voting in-person grew more apparent in the run-up to Election Day, voters had inundated Wisconsin election officials with 1.2 million absentee ballot requests. This overwhelmed a bureaucracy accustomed to accommodating only 250,000 such requests for a spring election. As a result, tens of thousands of voters who requested the right to vote absentee may not receive their ballots until after Election Day. Meanwhile, 550,000 requested absentee ballots had yet to be returned as of Monday morning.

In light of these facts, a federal judge in Wisconsin ordered the state to give voters until April 13 to submit their absentee ballots. The Republican National Committee appealed that decision. And on Monday evening, the five Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it, overriding the objections of their four Democrat-appointed colleagues. The conservative majority argued that Democrats had failed to establish that voters in Wisconsin this year would “be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to the timing of their receipt of absentee ballots.”

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg begged to differ:

The Court’s suggestion that the current situation is not “substantially different” from “an ordinary election” boggles the mind. Some 150,000 requests for absentee ballots have been processed since Thursday, state records indicate. The surge in absentee ballot requests has overwhelmed election officials, who face a huge backlog in sending ballots. As of Sunday morning, 12,000 ballots reportedly had not yet been mailed out. It takes days for a mailed ballot to reach its recipient— the postal service recommends budgeting a week — even without accounting for pandemic induced mail delays. It is therefore likely that ballots mailed in recent days will not reach voters by tomorrow; for ballots not yet mailed, late arrival is all but certain.

The conservative jurists were unmoved by these realities. Wisconsin Republicans ostensibly welcomed them. As election law expert Rick Hasen recently observed, “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.” In other words, the GOP has reason to believe that it has banked a solid lead in the absentee vote, and therefore has nothing to gain — but potentially, a State Supreme Court seat to lose — by allowing an extra week of absentee voting.

All this might seem sufficient to declare the collective actions of the Wisconsin GOP, Republican National Committee, and conservative Supreme Court majority a gross betrayal of democracy. But to appreciate the true depths of the GOP’s treachery, one must consider further context.

The true stakes of Tuesday’s election lie in the race between the state’s incumbent conservative Supreme Court justice Daniel Kelly and his challenger, liberal Judge Jill Karofsky. If Kelly wins reelection, then Wisconsin Republicans will fortify their 5-2 majority on the court — and thus, their unshakable grip on control of the state’s legislature.

The latter point requires some elaboration. In Wisconsin’s 2018 gubernatorial election, Evers defeated incumbent Republican Scott Walker by one percent statewide. Yet the Democrat won a majority of votes in only 36 of Wisconsin’s 99 Assembly districts. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates won 53 percent of all ballots cast for the state Assembly, even as Republicans won a 27-seat majority in that body.

In other words: The 2018 midterms confirmed that the GOP has gerrymandered Wisconsin’s electoral maps so aggressively, it will be essentially impossible for the Democratic Party to gain control of that (purple) state’s legislature until its maps are redrawn. This point was not lost on the Wisconsin GOP. Immediately following Evers’s victory, Republicans convened a special legislative session to transfer powers from the popularly elected branch of government that Democrats had just won to the undemocratically elected branch that the GOP couldn’t lose.

In the next year or two, Wisconsin will redraw all its electoral maps to comport with the new Census. And Evers will have the power to veto any gerrymander the legislature enacts. But Republicans could reject that veto, and bring a lawsuit claiming that the legislature has sole authority over redistricting. And if the conservative majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court buys that argument — just as it bought the GOP’s case for the constitutionality of voter-ID laws and union-busting measures (that together likely cost Hillary Clinton the Badger State in 2016) — then it will be game over. And Democrats will be all but incapable of governing Wisconsin before 2030.

Wisconsin Democrats had one path out of this impasse: retaking control of the State Supreme Court, whose members are elected by statewide popular vote. They narrowly lost one such opportunity last year. But if Karofsky prevails Tuesday night, then they will be just one justice shy of flipping control.

All of which is to say: Wisconsin Republicans are disenfranchising voters by holding an election mid-pandemic (while blocking measures that would allow all interested voters to safely cast ballots from home) so as to preserve their ability to disenfranchise voters through an egregious partisan gerrymander — and also, potentially, a voting-roll purge.

For months now, Wisconsin Republicans have been fighting to purge 240,000 voters from the state’s voting rolls before this November’s presidential election. Periodically updating voter rolls to remove those who no longer live in-state is a legitimate practice. But the state’s election commission discovered inaccuracies when previously attempting to identify nonviable voters, and thus pushed to postpone the purge until after November 2020, so as to ensure no Wisconsinites were mistakenly disenfranchised (in the Badger State, inappropriately purged voters would still have the option to reregister on Election Day, but only if they have all the necessary documentation with them). Wisconsin Republicans preferred to err in the opposite direction. The State’s Supreme Court is poised to decide the issue.

In recent weeks, congressional Democrats have been pushing to ensure that November’s elections don’t turn out like today’s in Wisconsin. Given the significant possibility that the coronavirus will remain a threat to public health this fall, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus has called for giving every U.S. voter the ability to cast a ballot by mail. Republicans have opposed this measure, citing concerns that widespread mail-in voting will enable fraud. But like every other phantom voter-fraud threat that the GOP has conjured as a rationale for implementing measures that suppress turnout, Republicans have no evidentiary basis for believing mail-in voting abets mass voter fraud. And just last week, the Republican Speaker of Georgia’s House of Representatives said the quiet part loud, telling reporters that allowing voters to cast ballots by mail would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia,” because it “will certainly drive up turnout.”

Republicans know that their party faces demographic headwinds in the years to come. They can read polls of millennial voters. But the party also knows how to insulate their power from popular rebuke by exploiting the counter-majoritarian features of the U.S. government. Thus, a Republican state legislative majority that collectively received fewer votes than their Democratic colleagues in 2018 is forcing Wisconsin to hold an election under conditions that ensure Democratic voters in Milwaukee will be underrepresented. And a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority appointed by two Republican presidents who lost the popular vote subsequently made sure that Milwaukee’s disenfranchisement would not be mitigated by an extended deadline for absentee ballots.

Or, as NBC News summarized the situation for its readers:

Wisconsin’s election was already a mess yesterday morning, and it got even messier just hours later.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who previously had been fine with the state’s April 7 primaries and election proceeding as planned, issued an executive order Monday afternoon suspending in-person voting and postponing it until June.

The GOP-controlled state Supreme Court overruled the governor, reinstating the election for today … All of this instability should be a warning to the other states and the two political parties to come to some sort of an agreement on rules for the road in voting in our new Coronavirus Era.

Contrary to the above, Evers had not “been fine” with holding the state’s elections until late Monday afternoon. In fact, he asked the legislature to delay the election last week. NBC ostensibly reports otherwise because suggesting that Evers shared the GOP’s position until the last minute allows the network to hold both parties culpable for Tuesday’s indefensible proceedings. In this telling, Wisconsin’s election is not a demonstration of the Republican Party’s contempt for democracy; it is a “mess” that should be a warning to “the two political parties” that they must put aside partisan bickering and protect the integrity of November’s elections.

But if the Fourth Estate wishes to help preserve the integrity of America’s elections, it will need to stop pretending that the Republican Party shares that goal.

The Wisconsin GOP Is Risking Lives to Protect Minority Rule