Last week Wisconsin held elections despite efforts by the state’s Democratic governor Tony Evers to postpone the event like other states have done due to fears of people congregating in voting places during this pandemic. But the state’s Republican controlled legislature over-ruled him and it was backed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that has a 5-2 Republican majority. Like many states in the US, the positions on the Supreme Court are elected and people run of partisan platforms. When the governor tried to at least extend the deadline for absentee voting, the legislature again blocked him and took the case to the US Supreme Court that upheld their claim. So the election went ahead with long lines of people who sometimes had to wait for hours to vote. This was especially true in the urban areas where minority and poorer voters are where, as usual, polling stations were much fewer than in more affluent suburban areas.
Why were the Republicans so determined to go ahead with this vote despite the fears that difficult conditions caused by the pandemic would result in lower turnout? Because it has become obvious that Republican think that they can only win elections by making voting as difficult as possible so that many people, especially the poor, young, and minorities, would get discouraged and not vote. They think that their base of more affluent, white, and older voters will still vote and thus swing the elections their way. So voter suppression efforts have been increased in all Republican controlled areas of the country.
But why this particular election? It turns out that one of the elected offices on the ballot was for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court held by an incumbent conservative Republican Daniel Kelly and the party was determined to help him get re-elected over a more liberal Democratic challenger Jill Karofsky. But in a turn of events that must have shocked them, Karofsky won.
Karofsky’s triumph will provide a shot in the arm to demoralized Democrats who feared the judiciary had effectively rigged the election against her. After the Legislature refused to delay the election due to the coronavirus, Evers tried to delay it himself—only to be blocked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Understandably, more than 1 million Wisconsinites asked for mail-in ballots, but this surge in requests overwhelmed election officials, who could not process them in time. As a result, some large number of voters did not even receive a ballot until after Election Day. A lower court judge ordered officials to count these late ballots, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted Republicans’ request to nullify them. This one-two punch forced thousands of voters to stand in long lines in the midst of a pandemic, risking their lives to exercise their constitutional rights. And it disproportionately burdened urban residents, who lean Democratic. Milwaukee, for example, consolidated its polling locations from 182 to five after 7,000 election officials refused to work for fear of infection.
The voter suppression part of the effort seems to have succeeded.
As of Monday, 185,000 absentee ballots remained outstanding, and election officials were trying to determine what percentage of those might have been returned had Judge Conley’s deadline of April 13 held. In Milwaukee, official tallies showed that the percentage of unreturned ballots was double its usual rate.
There was also the indeterminate number of voters who were too afraid to appear at polling stations on Election Day, by which point it would have been too late to request absentee ballots.
And then there was the matter of how to handle ballots that had not been postmarked with an exact date.
So if voter suppression was successful, why did the Republican incumbent lose? One possibility is that one can only go so far in trying to disenfranchising voters before it backfires and makes the targets of that effort even more determined to vote and this seems to have happened in some places. The long lines to vote suggest that many people were not deterred.
But it may also be due to a faulty basis for the Republican strategy, the belief that older, white, and thus Republican-leaning voters are more willing to jump through all the voting hoops than others.
But it was never entirely clear that Republicans’ hunch—that Democrats benefit from widespread mail-in voting—was correct. That suspicion seems to have arisen from the fact that more Democratic states have adopted reforms that expand access to the ballot, including mail-in voting, while conservative states retain a slew of restrictions on the franchise. It may also be rooted in liberal advocates’ staunch opposition to severe limitations on mail-in voting; most lawsuits challenging those limitations were brought by organizations allied with Democrats. But in many states, Republican voters, especially older voters, historically use mail-in voting more than Democrats do.
You can be sure that there is plenty of soul-searching going on in Republican strategy circles as to what this election means for future efforts to suppress voting. Do they double down and risk making things too difficult for their own supporters? I think they will try to do that because they have committed themselves too much to that project to reverse course now.