April 13, 2020
The Wisconsin Election Debacle
Former United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, 2010-2017
In June 1919, Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, expanding the vote to women. This was a proud moment for progressive Wisconsin. Today -- given the actions of our Legislature -- on the issue of voting rights, Wisconsin is sadly a national embarrassment. One questions how Wisconsin would have acted in 1919 under our present leadership.
A brief chronology of Wisconsin’s recent voting rights actions should embarrass us all:
- In 2011 — in an act of pure political gerrymandering — Wisconsin’s voting map was redrawn to cement Republican Party power. In 2012, federal judges found the line-drawing unconstitutional and berated leadership for their “desperate attempt to hide” their methods. While the US Supreme Court ultimately allowed the flawed map to stand, the Court acknowledged the map was drawn for purely political reasons, but said the courts had no power to address political gerrymandering as that was an issue solely for legislative bodies.
- Again in 2011, the Wisconsin legislature passed the first of eight laws enacted over the next four years that transformed the Wisconsin election system. Each of these laws made it more difficult to register and vote. In July 2016, Wisconsin’s federal court found these laws unconstitutional as they related to voting ID requirements, time limits on in-person absentee voting, and student ID and registration requirements.
- In 2018 — after the statewide election of a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General — the Wisconsin legislature ignored the federal court injunction and passed almost identical laws making it more difficult to register and vote. In January 2019, the federal court struck down these new laws as clearly unconstitutional, and in violation of the court’s order, saying “This is not even a close question.”
Now it is 2020. As we approached the April 7 election all of us watched with growing horror as the Coronavirus pandemic spread, killing an increasing number in Wisconsin and across the country. We all heard the medical experts telling us the numbers will become even more devastating, and that social distancing was the only way to “flatten the curve.”
And what was the response of the Wisconsin Legislature? They refused: (1) To take early steps to move the election; (2) To take early steps to mail ballots to all eligible voters; and (3) To expand the time for absentee voting. They watched as the number of polling places shrunk dramatically, making it increasingly more difficult for in-person voting, and guaranteeing there would be long lines with more people put in danger from the virus.
The leadership fought — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — every attempt to postpone the election, or to provide even small changes that would have increased mailed ballots or the time for absentee voting.
And, finally, the leadership fought Governor Evers’ last-ditch effort to save lives by postponing the election. They argued, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed, that it was only in the legislature’s power to move the election, knowing full well that they had consistently refused to use this power to protect the voters and the electoral process.
And now it is the evening of April 13, 2020, and we await the results of this ill-advised election. It is horrible to write, but the facts must lead us to conclude that the Wisconsin Republican Leadership will be pleased if today’s voter turnout is historically low given their efforts over the past nine years to suppress the vote. What they couldn’t achieve by passing unconstitutional laws, they will perhaps achieve with the assistance of a deadly virus.
In a representative democracy, true leaders must take all possible steps to encourage voting, remove obstacles to voting, and to guarantee that every vote matters. Depending on the election — primary or general — from 40% to 70% of eligible voters do not vote. This should embarrass all of us. Yet our state legislature ignores these numbers and keeps trying to make it more difficult, and today more dangerous, to vote. Please stop this madness and do your duty.