Over the last two weeks, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 10,000 Americans and required much of the country to shut down. So, it was a jarring Tuesday for Americans hunkered down across the country to see long lines of voters waiting at the polls in Wisconsin, potentially risking their lives and the lives of others in order to participate in self-government.
Here was the scene in the predominantly Republican city of Waukesha, which consolidated its normal 15 polling places into one:
Polls open in minutes. Here’s a look at the line in Waukesha, the city’s only polling location pic.twitter.com/Uqg08gannt
— Matt Smith (@mattsmith_news) April 7, 2020
And this was the scene in the predominantly Democratic city of Milwaukee, which consolidated its normal 180 polling places into five:
Lines forming just 30 minutes after polls open in Milwaukee, people trying to space. Almost everyone has a mask pic.twitter.com/KVCJ7Ik0Xe
— Steadman™ (@AsteadWesley) April 7, 2020
Why did Wisconsin refuse to follow other states in postponing its election amid the pandemic? Here is what the state’s Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders have said over the past two weeks.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Tony Evers ordered Wisconsin’s schools closed on March 17, and issued a stay-at-home order to state residents on March 24 that is scheduled to last until the end of April. As recently as five days ago, Evers supported proceeding with today’s elections for the Democratic presidential primary, a state supreme court race, and many municipal races, though he had proposed changes that he said would protect the lives of Wisconsin voters: He wanted all voters to receive ballots by mail, and he wanted absentee ballots that were sent after Election Day to count.
On March 27, the Republican leader of the state Senate, Scott Fitzgerald, rejected Evers’s all-mail proposal, arguing that “procuring, printing, verifying, and mandating the mailing of millions of ballots within ten days” was not “logistically feasible.” That same day, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “the state doesn’t have enough ballots to meet Evers’ request, [according to] Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe.”
“Evers has said he wants all voters to receive an absentee ballot to be able to mail in their vote, and does not want to move the election,” the Journal Sentinel reported on April 1. “If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law,” Evers tweeted that day.
In an April 2 report on Wisconsin Democrats’ anger at Evers’s handling of the issue, Politico described his thinking:
“Our democracy is essential, it must go on. Keeping people safe is the governor’s top priority but we want people to participate in this election. We want as many people as possible to vote from home,” Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff told POLITICO. “We hope the Legislature would work with the governor to extend the time for [ballots] to be counted and to be received.”
She dismissed the possibility of the governor attempting to halt the election like DeWine did. “It’s not going to happen,” Baldauff said. “He doesn’t want to do it and he also doesn’t have the authority to do it.”
The governor’s office has argued that there’s no certain future date when the health crisis would relent. Officials also said that a delay would put at risk hundreds of nonpartisan positions on the ballot — including the mayor of Milwaukee — that under statute would be vacant if the election does not take place on Tuesday. That scenario, the governor’s office said, would create even more chaos amid a public health emergency. But critics say it is a gray area that Evers could have exploited through the Legislature or the courts to find a bridge solution until the health crisis abates.
In its April 1 report, the Journal Sentinel noted that Evers planned on using the National Guard to fill in at polling locations that were short of volunteers, but that news reportedly came as a surprise to some local election officials, who subsequently said it was too late to integrate many guardsmen. According to reports, the state was down some 7,000 election workers; the National Guard issued a statement on Monday saying 2,400 guardsmen were ready to work the polls.
The city of Milwaukee reported that instead of its 180 polling places, it would be reduced to five polling centers because of a lack of poll workers, forcing thousands of Wisconsinites to form long lines in order to vote. Robin Vos, the Republican leader of the state assembly, said city-government workers in Milwaukee should work the polls; the city’s top elections official invited Vos to work at one of the city’s “hot spots” himself. (There have been 45 COVID-19 deaths reported in Milwaukee County so far.)
Last Friday, four days before the election, Evers finally called for it to be postponed until May. Under pressure from mayors, he asked the legislature to agree to send absentee ballots to all voters by May 19 and extend the deadline for ballots to be turned to May 26. “I can’t move this election or change the rules on my own,” he said. The legislature’s leaders again rejected his request, gaveling in and out of its special session in seconds the next day, and proposed no alternative to Evers’s plan.
“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” the GOP’s legislative leaders said in a statement. “Our Republic must continue to function, and the many local government positions on the ballot must be filled so that municipalities can swiftly respond to the crisis at hand. We continue to support what Governor Evers has supported for weeks: the election should continue as planned on Tuesday.”
Yesterday, Evers did what he’d said all along he had no legal authority to do: He issued an executive order that both postponed in-person voting until June and extended the terms of municipal leaders, including the mayor of Milwaukee, whose term is set to expire on April 20.
The legislature’s leaders immediately sued, challenging the order as an unconstitutional overreach, and the state Supreme Court ruled 4–2 along ideological lines in their favor. Daniel Kelly, the justice seeking a fresh ten-year term in Tuesday’s election, did not participate in the ruling.
“People have bled, fought, and died for the right to vote in this country. But tomorrow in Wisconsin, thousands will wake up and have to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe,” Evers said in a statement responding to the ruling.
“The state’s highest court has spoken: The governor can’t unilaterally move the date of the election,” Republican legislative leaders Fitzgerald and Vos said in their own statement. “The safety and health of our citizens have always been our highest concern; that’s why we advocated for everyone to vote absentee. Wisconsin has responded in droves.”
Just how many voters were effectively shut out of the election remains unclear. In the spring 2019 Supreme Court election, 1.2 million Wisconsinites voted. In the 2016 spring primary that featured competitive Democratic and Republican presidential races, 2.1 million votes were cast.
The Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert reported Tuesday that a record 1.3 million absentee ballots have been requested and 865,000 have been returned. Ballots postmarked today and received by April 13 will be counted. On April 2, a federal district-court judge ruled that, although state law requires absentee ballots to arrive by Election Day, ballots received by April 13 would be accepted even if they were postmarked after election day. On Monday night, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that ballots must be postmarked by Election Day to be counted.
Over the last three weeks, Evers’s leadership has been feckless and erratic: He opposed postponing the election until the last-minute, pushed for the type of all-mail election that Republicans have staunchly opposed, and then issued an order he’d previously said he didn’t have the lawful authority to issue. The Republican legislature, meanwhile, wouldn’t budge from its position that Tuesday’s vote should go forward as planned, and refused to propose or entertain any alternatives. That left many voters who didn’t request or receive an absentee ballot early enough with a difficult, dangerous choice on Tuesday. According to city officials, 20,000 voters are expected to show up at Milwaukee’s five polling places, and their experience passing through the same location as thousands of others won’t be anything like that of picking up takeout food.
Given the incubation period of the virus and delays in testing, we won’t know for at least a few weeks how many people were sickened or died in order to vote.
Editor’s Note: This article originally identified the city of Waukesha as Waukesha County. It has been corrected.