Voters in Wisconsin faced a grim choice on April 7, the day of their presidential primary. Ignoring the pleas of voters and their own governor, Republican legislators forced voters to make a decision no one should have to make: risk their health to vote, or stay home and give up their voice.
While many states postponed their primaries due to COVID-19, Wisconsin held their presidential primary in-person, against the advice of public health officials. Democratic Governor Tony Evers fought the decision but was blocked by the Republican legislature at the State Supreme Court.
Reasons for this decision go back to 2018 when Democrat Tony Evers beat the incumbent Republican Governor, Scott Walker. Under Walker, Wisconsin had a united Republican government from 2010 to 2018. When Evers was elected, the dynamic of Wisconsin’s government shifted overnight. The legislature was determined to maintain Republican control, even going so far as to pass a series of bills to limit Evers’ power just before he took office. Since then, Wisconsin has been a battleground between its Democratic governor and Republican legislators.
The April 7 election was important in this battle not just because of the presidential candidate on the ticket, but the state and local seats up for reelection, such as mayors and court judges. The goal of the Republican legislature over these last two years has been to keep conservative politicians in office and limit Evers’ power.
For this reason, holding the election as scheduled and not expanding absentee options was in their best interest. To change the election to be held by an absentee ballot system is advantageous to Democrats and possibly detrimental to Republicans. Vote by mail allows people to vote more easily, and if people participate in bigger numbers, this has the possibility to change the outcome of an election. However, many are skeptical of the process because it increases the risk of potential voter fraud.
Astead Herndon, a political reporter for The New York Times, said when more people get involved in an election, this usually tends to help out Democrats. This was a major incentive for Republicans to hold the election as planned because a limited number of people would be able to come to the polls.
The decision made by Republican legislators allowed for not only an increased risk of illness but the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters. John Devaney, a lawyer for the Democrat party, had proposed a compromise prior to election day — extend the deadline for mail ballots to April 13, ensuring that those who couldn’t make it to the polls would still have the opportunity to vote. This decision was reversed by the State Supreme Court hours before the election, by lawmakers who stated their reasons for doing so as a precaution against voting fraud.
The grim reality of these decisions is that while some Wisconsinites endangered their lives at the polls, others lost their voice in this election entirely. State officials estimate that at least 27,500 absentee ballots came in too late to be counted and that 11,000 voters who requested ballots never even received one.
Turnout at the primary election in Wisconsin was down significantly from the 2016 primary. Even though the election went on, it didn’t proceed as it was planned pre-virus — only a fraction of usual voting sites were opened. Ninety percent of poll workers are senior citizens, a group that has a higher risk of complications or death if they contract coronavirus. This resulted in thousands of poll workers stepping down from their jobs and leaving polls understaffed or unable to operate. Milwaukee had five polling sites open compared to the usual 180. Ironically, this means that polling sites in Wisconsin were even more congested than usual.
Every choice that Wisconsin lawmakers made for their people was fraught with terrible consequences. These consequences could have been avoided by postponing the election or lessened by extending the date for absentee ballots, but both actions were blocked by the State Supreme Court.
To hold an election like this in the middle of a public health crisis, in a state under a stay-at-home order, was grossly irresponsible of the Wisconsin legislature, and to not allow for accommodations, such as an increased availability of absentee ballots, was an infringement on voter rights.
Decisions regarding the COVID-19 crisis are splitting Wisconsin in two, even now after the election has passed. Governor Tony Evers extended the state’s stay-at-home order until Memorial Day, and the legislature is pushing back against this policy as hard as they can. Republicans plan to challenge the order before the State Supreme Court, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is encouraging Wisconsinites to attend a rally scheduled to take place on April 24 at the State Capitol to protest Evers’ order. Eleven-thousand people are estimated to attend, even though large public gatherings are prohibited by Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order.
COVID-19 is forcing lawmakers all over the nation to make tough decisions. Whether we should lock down our nation to save lives or restart normal activity in order to preserve jobs and stimulate the economy is a controversial argument and one that doesn’t necessarily have a right answer. However, the decisions made in Wisconsin were senseless and reckless; there wasn’t a dire need to risk people’s health the way it was risked on election day.
Rather than coming to an objective decision based on public health, Republican lawmakers made this choice out of fear that the alternative would benefit Democrats. Other states in the nation postponed their elections or provided more options for absentee ballots, proving that it’s possible to hold an election without going to the polls. Wisconsin’s choice to blatantly ignore these solutions shows a lack of regard for public health and safety.
Haley Huchler is a freshman media arts and design and english major. Contact Haley at email@example.com