The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Wisconsin election was a mess. But there’s one element of it worth emulating.

A voter in Dunn, Wis., on Tuesday. (John Hart/AP)

Wisconsin held the first coronavirus election on Tuesday. It was a disaster, but an oddly helpful one.

Helpful, because those snaking lines of mask-clad voters can serve as a warning to other states: Strengthen your mail-based voting systems now, or risk catastrophe. And the delay in reporting the state’s results could accustom us to a new normal, one in which elections operate at a slower rhythm and change for the better.

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Wisconsin was one of the few states that didn’t postpone its election in the face of the covid-19 pandemic, and the result was predictable.

Many Wisconsinites understandably tried to avoid Election Day crowds by requesting absentee ballots. But the state’s system wasn’t ready for the new requests: The Wisconsin Elections Commission reported that almost 10,000 voters who requested ballots before the deadline didn’t receive them. Some waited in long lines to vote in person, potentially exposing themselves and their neighbors to the virus. Others felt that voting was too dangerous and chose to stay home.

No state wants to repeat that experience.

But we should keep one feature of this messy Wisconsin election around: a slower process for reporting results. Before the election, a federal judge ruled that the results couldn’t be published until April 13, well past the time that absentee ballots are typically postmarked, received and counted.

This restriction made for a relatively muted election night: Reporters weren’t live-tweeting votes as they came in, quickly writing takes on how to interpret the race or trying to spin out a second-day story. Instead, the election happened, we resumed coverage of the pandemic, and the results will enter the news cycle alongside other stories such as the unwinding of the primary and continued efforts to fight the virus. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) decision to drop out of the race on Wednesday seemed less like a response to any specific results and more like a nod to the inevitable.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

And if vote-by-mail were widely adopted, not only would election nights be more sedate but the campaign season leading up to them would also become less frenetic.

Most American voters still cast their ballot in person on Election Day, and candidates take advantage of that. They sit on opposition research and release it at the last moment: just in time for the public to digest it, but not so early that their opponents can rebut the charges. They flood the airwaves with ads right before the race and generally do anything they can get away with during the final pre-election sprint.

But vote-by-mail would alleviate these problems by shifting the entire campaign earlier and adding a more deliberative voting period. Candidates would no longer want to sit on their opposition research — if they did, they’d lose the opportunity to persuade the huge segment of voters who would send in their ballots early. Reporting and analysis would likewise move forward in the election cycle. Once the voting period began, Americans would have more time to sort through that reporting, process what they’ve heard and vote at their leisure.

Vote counting would also become a less intense experience if poll workers and state officials had more time to do it. Reporters wouldn’t need to quickly swat away false rumors of a “rigged” election or unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud in the space of one short evening. We could instead take our time and use the extended vote-counting period to fight misinformation and deliver the truth to more readers.

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This transition would be bumpy. Most states don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle a surge in by-mail or absentee voting. People are creatures of habit. They want to vote in a comfortable, familiar way and may be wary of voting absentee or by mail. States would need to continue to prevent voter fraud (which is extremely rare in the United States) and educate voters about the new ways to cast their ballots. And the trip to the polls is an important civic ritual in America: We’d have to find ways to replace it.

But the benefits are worth the cost. Ramping up vote-by-mail would extend the franchise, help virus-proof our system and make the process more psychologically bearable. These delays might feel annoying first, and they’d require us to delay gratification. But in the end, a slower process might be just the medicine the U.S. electoral system needs.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne: Wisconsin is proof we need urgent action on voting rights

Paul Waldman: Wisconsin’s election nightmare is a preview of what could happen in November

Jennifer Rubin: Wisconsin shows the fragility of democracy

Bob Kerrey: The Wisconsin fiasco shows why Democrats need to take drastic action

Ruth Marcus: Conservative justices force Wisconsin voters to choose between danger and disenfranchisement