None of them met in person yesterday, because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. But all of them ordered Tuesday's primary election to go forward, requiring anyone who did not get an absentee ballot in the mail by Tuesday to show up at polling stations, wait in lengthy lines and vote.
“We decided to risk our lives to come vote,” Ellie Bradish, 40, said as she waited outside Milwaukee's Riverside High School. “I feel like I'm voting for my neighbors, all the people who don't have the luxury to wait this long.”
Riverside was one of five open polling places in a city that usually has 180. Waukesha, a Republican-leaning city 20 miles away, had just one. Wisconsin, the scene of some of the past decade's most bitter partisan combat, was holding an election that medical professionals and local officials worried was unsafe and with perhaps tens of thousands of ballots potentially left uncounted because of huge demand and shifting deadlines for mail-in absentee ballots.
“I do not consider this a legitimate election,” said Marcelia Nicholson, a member of Milwaukee's Board of Supervisors who received her absentee ballot on Election Day, 17 days after requesting it. “This fight isn’t over. What happened here is going to send a message to other states. But I’m not convinced the current administration or the conservative courts will empower states to do what they want to do, and hold fair elections.”
Wisconsin's election, which is unlikely to be resolved when polls close today, is a stark warning of the problems that could bedevil other states ahead of November's election. Democrats have been nearly unanimous in blaming Republicans, who control the legislature and a majority on the state Supreme Court, for rejecting Democratic Gov. Tony Evers's last-minute attempt to delay the election. Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to change the rules because absentee ballot returns were higher in conservative-leaning counties.
“In words Governor Evers’s office used just days ago: ‘Democracy is essential; it must go on,’ ” Austin Chambers, chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said Monday night. “The Wisconsin Supreme Court reaffirmed that guiding principle in its decision today, righteously protecting millions of Wisconsin voters from the Democrats’ pitiful, partisan gamesmanship.”
President Trump himself cast an absentee ballot in 2018 but has amplified the idea that in-person voting is an expression of democracy, while mail-in voting is not. “It shouldn’t be mail-in voting,” he said Friday. “It should be, you go to a poll, and you proudly display yourself.”
Republicans’ priority Tuesday, from the RSLC to the president himself, was not the Democratic primary. At issue was one of seven state Supreme Court seats, which Republicans had been nervous about winning until the pandemic threw the election into disarray.
Holding the Democrats’ race on the same day as the contest between conservative Justice Daniel Kelly and liberal challenger Jill Karofsky put the Republican Party at a possible turnout disadvantage. In December 2018, Republicans briefly considered moving the presidential primary to March but keeping the court race and a bevy of other local elections in April. They opted against that, not because of Democratic complaints, but because of the financial and logistical costs of holding two elections.
Legislators had the power to move the election this year as enjoinders against in-person gatherings became sterner but opted against it. Evers, constantly at odds with the Republican legislature, called March 27 for every voter to be sent an absentee ballot. It was logistically impossible, given the time frame, and after Republicans shot it down, Evers called on the National Guard to staff polling stations that volunteers were refusing to.
The impasse led to yesterday's frenzy of ultimatums and lawsuits and today’s election. Even the Democratic candidates for president weren’t on the same page, with Sen. Bernie Sanders pausing his get-out-the-vote efforts and criticizing officials for letting the election go forward and former vice president Joe Biden making no comment on its legitimacy.
“We have to make our democracy, as well as dealing with the disease, function,” Biden said Tuesday morning, in an interview taped before the last-minute legal moves. “We can do both. We should be thinking now ahead.”
As a test of America’s creaky and diffuse election system, Wisconsin found problem after problem. One, which can inform states as they organize this summer’s primaries, was the logistical difficulty of ramping up absentee voting. More than 1.2 million Wisconsinites requested mail ballots; in 2018, just under 600,000 of the 2.7 million ballots cast in statewide elections were absentees. The shorter timeline and greater demand came with issues the state was not ready for.
A second problem was the law governing absentee balloting, which differs from state to state. Wisconsin requires absentee voters to find a witness who can verify that it was really them casting their vote, a rule that confounded voters who were observing six-foot social distancing rules. In some states, voters who get sick on Election Day can designate someone to pick up a ballot for them. In Wisconsin, a voter must be hospitalized, not merely sick, to make that request.
A third problem, and one that has spurred the most Democratic panic, is the absolute disagreement between the parties on what it means to have a fair election. Republicans described their legal wins as victories for democracy, with the RSLC calling the emergency surge of absentee requests and returns a “record-high turnout.” At the same time, state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler was warning that courts would “disenfranchise untold thousands of Wisconsin voters and consign an unknown number of Wisconsinites to their deaths.”
Election Day began with both parties aware of one number: 9,388. According to the state Elections Commission, that was the count of absentee ballots requested before Friday’s deadline but not sent out by Tuesday morning. It was marginally smaller than the margin separating Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin four years ago and about 50 percent larger than the margin in last year’s close Supreme Court race, which the Republican-backed candidate won.
To Democrats’ frustration, the specific problems in Wisconsin did not move the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority. On Saturday, the director of the Milwaukee Election Commission warned that any change to the extended absentee ballot deadline — voters would have until April 13, not April 7, to mail ballots back — “would further compromise the integrity of this election.”
But in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee, the case that ended any further election challenges, the court’s conservative majority brushed those concerns aside and restored the April 7 deadline. Ballots would have to be postmarked by that date to be counted.
“The plaintiffs put forward no probative evidence in the District Court that these voters here would be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to the timing of their receipt of absentee ballots,” the court wrote.
The nine justices did not meet to write that opinion. A few days earlier, the court had delayed in-person oral arguments, over concerns that the pandemic would make the participants unsafe.
Dan Simmons and Jan M. Larson contributed to this report.
“Long lines, anger and fear of infection: Wisconsin proceeds with elections under court order,” by Elise Viebeck, Amy Gardner, Dan Simmons and Jan M. Larson
Fear and voting in the Badger State.
“Election Day Live Blog,” by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By-the-minute updates on the drama in Wisconsin.
“Trump’s coronavirus commentary bolsters attack ads questioning his fitness to lead,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Annie Linskey
Democrats settling on a new strategy for attacking the president.
“Political pollsters find people stuck at home are happy to talk,” by James Rowley and Emily Wilkins
How quarantines could change polling.
“Biden seeks to revive fundraising momentum as coronavirus — and Trump — grab attention," by Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Matt Viser
How to raise money when no one can go to a black-tie event.
We won’t know the full results of Wisconsin’s election until next week, after absentee ballots mailed or dropped off today are counted. But we have benchmarks for determining just how much turnout slacked under the pandemic conditions that are hampering in-person voting.
The high-water mark for turnout in the state’s primaries, for both parties, came in 2016. Overall, 2,113,544 votes were cast, and 100,000 more ballots were cast in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.
Neither party was expecting turnout that high today, even before the pandemic. But until March 17, the first election held as states started to issue stay-at-home orders, Democratic turnout was outpacing 2016 levels. That day, same-day turnout dropped precipitously in Illinois, which neighbors Wisconsin and has a similar election system — a short early-vote period and fairly limited absentee voting.
The number to beat was 1,113,285, the total votes cast in the 2008 Wisconsin primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In that year, the Republican primary wound down relatively quickly, with John McCain facing only token opposition. As a result, just 402,699 votes were cast in the party’s Wisconsin presidential primary.
Other recent primaries were even more lopsided. In 2012, there was no real Democratic challenge to Obama; GOP primary turnout hit 787,847. In 2004, George W. Bush faced no Republican primary challenge; Democratic turnout in the contest between John F. Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean hit 828,364.
It’s extremely unlikely that this year's turnout will approach 2016 levels. According to Wisconsin’s Elections Commission, 1,282,762 absentee ballots, in total, were requested before Friday’s deadline. By this morning, 864,750 had been returned. That looks less like typical primary turnout than it does turnout in contested state Supreme Court elections. Last year, when Republicans narrowly won one of their five seats on the court, 1,207,569 ballots were cast; in 2018, when Democrats decisively won one of their two seats, just 996,656 ballots were cast.
Republicans responded to that 2018 result by ramping up their voter contact, training and spending, turning the 2019 race into a model of how they wanted to hold the state this year. But the difference between a race where only the Supreme Court is on the ballot, and a race where a presidential primary is on the ballot, has been hundreds of thousands of votes.
Justice Kelly campaign, “Order Up.” Judicial elections in Wisconsin are technically nonpartisan, but the Democratic and Republican parties traditionally get behind a single candidate who shares their values. Kelly, the incumbent conservative who’s repeatedly been endorsed by the president, has run ads that portray him as down to earth and cautious — like this spot, which puts Kelly himself at a diner counter with voters who can’t say enough about him. “Kelly follows the law, instead of making it up,” says one man. “Tough, fair, honors the Constitution,” says another.
Jill Karofsky, “Stop Corruption.” The Democratic-backed judicial candidate has positioned herself as an independent-minded “victim’s rights advocate,” warning about how judges can be influenced without naming any particular liberal priorities she might rule in favor of. Here, without naming Kelly, Karofsky says she would “make decisions based on the law’s impact on real people, not corporate donors.”
DCCC, “Leader.” The Democratic campaign for California’s 25th district, which Katie Hill vacated last year, is a test for all of the party’s 2020 messaging. Here, it’s that Republican nominee Mike Garcia, who supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, would “let insurance companies deny coverage for preexisting conditions,” a reliable Democratic argument that is twinned with footage of health-care workers responding to crises.
Dems in disarray
The Wisconsin primary is the first real contest between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders since March 17, three long weeks ago. It’s the first big contest since March 10, when Michigan and Washington both voted, to take place in a state that Sanders won four years ago. Something to watch, amid all the confusion, is what the result will mean for Sanders and his allies, who are riven over how he can win the nomination and whether he could continue if his path disappeared.
While both Biden and Sanders have done remote TV interviews, Sanders has not held a news conference since March 13. Surrounded by reporters in Burlington, Vt., he took questions about the coronavirus and one about whether he was “rethinking” his campaign strategy.
“My long-term goal,” he said, “is to win.”
Sanders has not expanded on his strategy, or what a path to victory would look like. But the reason Wisconsin looms so large is that the next months of the primary will unfold across largely hostile territory. While there are 27 contests left, Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in 16 of them. In that context, these 27 states, territories and districts selected 1,553 delegates. Sanders won just 694 of them.
Wisconsin was particularly important to the Sanders strategy that year, as the big primary state where he performed the best. He defeated Clinton by 14 points, carrying every part of the state outside Milwaukee. He beat that margin in some caucuses, winning by 40 points in Alaska, 36 points in Kansas and 30 points in Hawaii.
But those states have since switched to primaries, and every such switch this year has hurt Sanders. He ran slightly ahead of his Wisconsin margin in West Virginia, winning it by 15 points, but exit polling found Sanders doing very well with self-identified conservatives, a bloc of voters who supported him over Clinton but have not come back to him this cycle. He won Oregon by 14 points, Rhode Island by 12 points, Montana by eight points and Indiana by six points, helped by a coalition of liberals and anti-establishment swing voters.
Clinton ran the table everywhere else. She beat Sanders by 48 points in Louisiana and 43 points in Georgia, the last two Southern states on the calendar this year, and she put up double-digit wins in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, most of them states where voters must register as Democrats to vote in the primary.
The Sanders campaign is more optimistic about New York this year, thanks to voter registration changes that allies won in the legislature and to the high-profile endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But even if he ran 10 points ahead of his 2016 margins in these states, he would badly lose the delegate count to Biden.
In the states
Puerto Rico, the biggest delegate prize of the seven districts or territories that hold Democratic contests, has once again delayed the primary that had been bumped into this month. The contest has now been delayed “indefinitely,” with the state’s Democrats calling for “more flexibility to determine the feasibility of a date for the local presidential primary in compliance with all the required processes in law.”
That leaves the island’s 51 delegates, more than the party has assigned to Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, in limbo. One potential makeup date: June 7, the date already in effect for local party primaries. That’s two days before the Democratic National Committee’s cutoff for delegate selection, after which states and territories face sanctions, which are widely expected to be waived.
(Many thanks, as always, to Josh Putnam of FrontLoadingHQ.)
Of the three people seeking the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, only President Trump has excitedly encouraged Wisconsin voters to turn out today. He’s repeatedly tweeted his support of Dan Kelly, the Republican-backed candidate for the Supreme Court, but not engaged as fully as he did in other primaries, before the pandemic.
Bernie Sanders has not made a live appearance since his Saturday night forum on the coronavirus response, which got around 500,000 views on Facebook. Tonight, he’ll host a live stream about the coronavirus’s disparate impact on black Americans, alongside medical experts and surrogates. He repeatedly condemned Wisconsin’s Republicans for pushing forward with the primary but made his last comments on the election on Monday night.
Joe Biden started Tuesday with a new endorsement, from Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and ended it with an endorsement from Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. He also made a “Today Show” appearance that touched on the election. Asked whether Sanders should end his campaign, he demurred but said that the senator from Vermont would be part of his campaign operation when the primary was over.
“I wouldn't presume to do that, and I really mean it,” Biden said when asked whether he would tell Sanders to quit. “It’s a hard, hard decision, and Bernie has a lot of really devoted followers. It’s a difficult decision to make, but it’s his to make.”
… six days until the votes will be counted in Wisconsin
… 63 days until the cutoff for picking Democratic delegates
… 77 days until the final Democratic primary
… 132 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 139 days until the Republican National Convention
… 209 days until the general election