The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans can’t even win with voter suppression

Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait to cast ballots in Milwaukee on April 7. (Morry Gash/AP)

You could almost hear the sound of thousands of Republican officials harrumphing and gnashing their teeth Monday night when the results of a key Wisconsin Supreme Court race came in. Republicans had gone to great lengths to suppress the vote, refusing to postpone the election despite the coronavirus pandemic and racing to the U.S. Supreme Court to block an extension of time for voters to return absentee ballots. This was the perfect example of Republicans’ go-to tactic: Make it hard to vote, hoping your own (whiter, older) voters will turn out but Democrats won’t. That strategy bombed in Wisconsin, suggesting Republican efforts to tamp down on voting by mail (or other means) may be self-destructive.

The Post reports, “A liberal challenger easily defeated the conservative incumbent for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a key race at the heart of Democratic accusations that Republicans risked voters’ health and safety by going forward with last week’s elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.” Voting by mail was a huge success with “nearly 1.1 million Wisconsinites cast[ing] ballots that way, nearly as many as total turnout in last year’s Supreme Court race — and more than the total turnout in the court races in each of the previous two years.”

In the end, liberal Jill Karofsky crushed Daniel Kelly, the conservative incumbent. To make matters worse, Karofsky won comfortably in Kenosha County, the ultimate swing county, which President Trump won narrowly in 2016.

The results should shake Republicans’ conviction that they benefit by making voting by mail arduous. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells me, “Republicans have become so used to thinking that if people vote, they will lose, that they aren’t actually looking at this election.” However, she says, “Elderly voters lean Republican and are far more likely to stay away from the polls if the coronavirus continues to rage.” While low-interest voters tend to use voting by mail and favor Democrats, she explains, “There is just no way to predict how a broadening of vote by mail would affect the electoral outcome, but it is at least as likely to favor Republicans as Democrats.”

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The result was a triumph for the young state Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler, who championed voting by mail, challenged the GOP in court at every turn and showed that Republicans’ lock on Wisconsin can be picked. In a tweet he declared it was a victory for “justice — and democracy”:

Karofsky released a statement of her own thanking the people of Wisconsin, her friends and supporters. However, she declared that it was “simply unacceptable” to force voters to risk their lives to vote and that the episode “should raise serious concerns about the future of our democracy.”

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)

The result is gratifying to Democrats, but this is no way to run elections. Ian Bassin from the nonpartisan Protect Democracy observes, “That Judge Karofsky won the Wisconsin Supreme Court seat provides a measure of poetic justice but not actual justice.” Bassin adds, “Actual justice is when every eligible voter has a free and fair chance to vote.”

Democrats should not be complacent. They benefited in the race because Democrats had a presidential primary race to draw them to the polls (before Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out) while Republicans did not. The turnout for a presidential election is going to be far different from the electorate that cares enough to turn out for state Supreme Court elections.

Nevertheless, Democrats should take solace on two grounds. First, the influence former Republican governor Scott Walker (who appointed Kelly) seems to be vanishing. The state has not shifted permanently red; it is a purple state (having voted Walker out in 2018), and former vice president Joe Biden has a solid chance to win it in November. Second, while voter suppression is unconstitutional, undemocratic and morally offensive, Republicans may discover it also may be ineffective. Democrats determined to vote, whether by mail or in person, can prevail in swing states and districts (as they did in the 2018 midterms). Perhaps the DNC should bring in Ben Wikler to run things for the fall.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Wisconsin shows the fragility of democracy

George Conway and David Lat: Don’t like the Wisconsin election mess? Don’t blame the courts.

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

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

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