Now Wisconsin Republicans are testing whether taking a hard line on voting rules during the coronavirus crisis might give them an even more pronounced — and even less legitimate — electoral advantage. The state is set to hold its primary on Tuesday, and Republicans have filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court, asking the justices to shorten the deadline voters have to submit their absentee ballots. This is just one example of Wisconsin Republicans insisting on rules that make it difficult to vote during this public health emergency, using the crisis as cover to limit democratic participation.
If they successfully benefit from exploiting covid-19 this week, they will show Republicans everywhere that they can use the coronavirus for political gain. The credibility of November’s presidential vote is at stake.
Unlike other states that have moved their presidential primaries, Wisconsin has stuck to its April 7 Election Day. The election will decide not just who gets the state’s primary delegates but also the final makeup of the state Supreme Court and a variety of local offices. Among those on the ballot is an extremely conservative Supreme Court justice up for reelection.
This is the context in which the state GOP has rejected pleas to make it easier for those who do not want to show up to a crowded polling location to vote.
The governor asked the legislature to relax a requirement that mail-in voters upload their voter IDs, despite the fact that some may not have the technology or the know-how to do so and cannot go to the libraries shuttered by the pandemic for help. Republicans refused. Evers asked lawmakers to extend the deadline for people to return absentee ballots, as a surge in requests overwhelmed state workers. State GOP leaders said no. He requested that every registered voter simply be sent an absentee ballot. No, again.
On Saturday, the governor forced the legislature to convene a special session to consider canceling in-person voting and giving Wisconsinites until late May to return mail-in ballots. GOP lawmakers met but did nothing.
The courts have ordered only limited changes. U.S. District Judge William M. Conley on Thursday moved the ballot deadline, allowing ballots that arrive by April 13 to be counted. And he eased a requirement that all mail-in ballots be signed by a witness — a nonsensical standard in the era of social distancing. State and national Republican officials appealed the ruling, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit stayed Conley’s adjustments to the witness signature rule. Republicans’ emergency Supreme Court petition asks the justices to roll back part of Conley’s deadline extension, too.
The result is that, barring some last-minute shift, many Wisconsans will have to choose between risking their health to vote in-person and not voting at all. But voting in-person is not much of an option. Thousands of polling workers have said they will not show up. Polling places across the state will be closed. If people can even find an open location, they will be jumbled with many others who would usually vote elsewhere, risking the spread of disease between communities who are otherwise sheltering apart.
As covid-19 rages, state governments have a profound responsibility to help people find new ways to vote, and to stay safe doing it. Working on the fly, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state managed to dispatch 6.9 million mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter there in advance of his state’s May primary. Wisconsin Republicans, by contrast, are failing their people and betraying democratic principles.
And they might do more than suppress turnout: Polls suggest that Republicans are less concerned about covid-19 than Democrats are. Like GOP politicians in other states, Wisconsin Republicans leaders have irresponsibly downplayed the risk: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) encouraged people “sick of watching Netflix” to volunteer at polling places. In seeking political advantage for themselves, the party is putting their own voters at risk.
Wisconsin Republicans are hardly an aberration. President Trump’s campaign is fighting efforts across the country to make voting easier during the coronavirus crisis. As Trump himself explained on Fox News last week, “If you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The novel coronavirus can turn burdensome voting rules into prohibitive ones. This poses a far greater risk to democracy than tales of voter fraud. No one — not even Republicans who calculate they might temporarily benefit from lower turnout — should welcome that.