This is the underlying factor to consider as you watch the terrible battle that’s playing out right now in Wisconsin over whether the state will hold an election on schedule amid a raging pandemic.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, just issued an executive order postponing the primary election — which was set for Tuesday — until June 9.
Even he seemed uncertain about whether he has the legal authority to do so. “Regardless of the legal issues, I absolutely have the belief that the governor has to step up and stand up for those people,” he said. “No one else is.”
Evers said his decision was prompted by warnings from the White House, which has said the coronavirus crisis is going to substantially worsen this week. “We have the surgeon general saying this is Pearl Harbor,” Evers said. “It’s time to act.”
As soon as Evers issued his order, the Republican leadership in the legislature announced their intention to challenge it in the state supreme court. “The clerks of this state should stand ready to proceed with the election,” they said in a statement. “The governor’s executive order is clearly an unconstitutional overreach.”
What’s strange is that Republicans in Wisconsin have resisted numerous efforts to make it easier for people to vote safely, even though the White House itself has indeed issued dire pandemic warnings. Other states have postponed their primaries as the novel coronavirus made gathering with your neighbors in long lines in a middle school gym seem like a terrible idea.
Evers was willing to hold the election as scheduled until recently, but he tried to make the voting safer and easier amid the pandemic. Yet Republicans resisted.
Evers called for the state to simply send every voter an absentee ballot, but Republicans refused. Democrats filed lawsuits to remove certain absentee ballot requirements that will be impossible for some to follow during the lockdown. Republicans fought those, too, as well as a suit seeking to give the state more time to count the increased number of absentee ballots.
All this has led to reasonable speculation that Wisconsin Republicans are actively hoping to carry through this election with lower turnout, because they believe that will benefit them in a big race: one that pits conservative Justice Daniel Kelly against liberal challenger Jill Karofsky, competing for a 10-year term in a coveted state supreme court seat.
As Ari Berman bluntly put it: “Republicans may be counting on low Democratic turnout to help them win.”
However the state courts do end up ruling on this immediate standoff, all this underscores two important things about the battles to come with regard to this fall’s election.
First, it shows how brutally hard it will be to get Republicans to agree to a comprehensive effort to make voting easier and safer this fall (should the coronavirus still be with us), such as national vote by mail.
With negotiations looming over another economic rescue package, Democrats will be under pressure to draw a hard line to get something like universal vote by mail included. But the fact that Republicans are fighting measures to make voting safer with lives at stake shows how unlikely they are to buckle.
“The extreme lengths the GOP has taken to avoid mailing voters ballots in Wisconsin illustrates how hard Republicans are likely to fight against universal vote by mail nationally — even to the point of endangering the public,” Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told us.
Wisconsin Republicans have employed justifications for this that are positively comical. As one of them told Cameron Joseph:
“There’s serious concern on the conservative side that the liberals are changing the rules in the middle of the election and tilting them toward their favor,” said Brian Reisinger, a top Wisconsin GOP strategist. “There’s a major feeling that absentee and early voting are tools of the left to make up for the fact that they can’t win on election day.”
Gosh, what on earth would prompt reasonable grounds for a “changing of the rules” right now? It couldn’t be the fact that a pandemic is raging that has killed nearly 10,000 Americans, could it?
Indeed, all of this has the feel of a dry run for this fall’s election. If the pandemic is still with us, it seems obvious that Wisconsin Republicans will again resist efforts to make voting safer and easier when the presidential race (as opposed to a spot on the state supreme court) is at stake.
Wikler posited that this fall, Republicans will again want to try to ensure the lowest possible turnout — with Democratic constituencies not showing up due to pandemic fears — just as they are now.
“This sets the stage for what happens in Wisconsin’s fall election — and, so, the fate of the Trump presidency,” Wikler told us, adding that “the GOP’s fear is that if everyone can safely vote this spring,” it makes it more likely that “Trump would lose.”
Given the centrality of Wisconsin to Trump’s chances of reelection, this has to be seen as plausible.