Pandemic Politics: Wisconsin Primary is a Flashing Red Light for Legitimacy of Presidential Election
Updated: Apr 8
The disgraceful spectacle of today’s life-threatening primary election in Wisconsin is both a vivid symbol of the savagery of the nation’s polarized politics and a signal of the maelstrom that looms over November’s presidential balloting.
The intense partisan turmoil that surrounds the Wisconsin primary -- amid a deadly public health disaster and the immense trauma it has inflicted upon the economy -- demonstrates a third crisis now afflicting the U.S.: a political crisis that casts a shadow over a presidential campaign and election conducted amid a global pandemic.
"And in case it’s not yet obvious," wrote Charlie Sykes, the Wisconsin-based founder of the conservative website The Bulwark, "what’s happening in Wisconsin is a dry run for what’s coming for the rest of the country in November: Elections roiled in partisan rancor, dysfunction, voter suppression, and questionable legitimacy."
Sykes, a recovering conservative talk show host, who broke with the Republican Party over its cult-like embrace of Donald Trump’s nihilism, has closely followed the brutal partisan warfare that led to images of Wisconsin voters, wearing masks and lining up six feet apart, literally risking their lives to vote in today’s primary.
On Wisconsin. Viewed as the most crucial battleground in Trump’s bid for re-election, Wisconsin is the only state that did not postpone its scheduled primary until June, once the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic began to hit the country in mid March.
For the past decade, the state has been wracked by toxic political conflicts, involving all three branches of its state government.
The decision to go forward with the primary came only after the Republican-dominated state supreme court blocked an order to postpone it by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.
The governor waffled on the issue for days, until issuing the order Monday, while the GOP-led Legislature dug in from the start in opposition to moving the election, and filed a legal challenge which the state court upheld. For good measure, the U.S. Supreme Court, on a straight partisan-line vote, late Monday threw in a secondary ruling backing the Republicans by restricting the timeline for acceptance of absentee ballots.
For Wisconsin voters and politicians, the key issue on the ballot is not the Democratic presidential primary contest, in which Joe Biden is widely expected to defeat Bernie Sanders, but a campaign for state supreme court justice, pitting Republican incumbent Dan Kelly, against Democrat Jill Karofsky, for a, um, nonpartisan (cough, cough) seat on the court.
No matter who emerges as the winners in today’s primary, the results likely will be tainted among a substantial portion of voters by the political controversy, and legal challenges likely to follow.
As a practical matter, Trump's failure to unify the country during the pandemic, or even to try, along with nationwide shutdowns and social distancing, plus the unknowable progression of the pandemic, combine to raise reasonable and realistic questions of whether the political chaos accompanying the Wisconsin primary could attend a number of states in November.
As Sykes wrote:
Previously, I had thought that postponing elections sets a very dangerous precedent. Imagine the chaos if President Trump were to call for a delay in the November presidential election? And that’s still true. It is a dangerous precedent.
But the threat of COVID-19 is dangerous, too. There is a real chance that a second wave of the pandemic will hit this fall, recreating the electoral crisis we face now.
If that happens, we will have three options:
Hold the election in distressed circumstances that may or may not result in chaos.
Postpone the election, which would certainly create chaos.
Reform the system now so that there is a more stable way to hold the vote should another outbreak take hold.
If this week’s Wisconsin dry-run is any indication, then the best option is reform. And we ought to have started working on it five minutes ago.
Wisconsin writ large. As a political matter, the problem of partisan polarization underpinning the allegedly unbiased administration of state elections is reflected on a large scale in Washington.
This week, congressional Democrats are fighting, for the second time, to include sufficient funding in the latest disaster relief package to allow every state to carry out vote-by-mail balloting that would avoid the health and safety hazards posed by the pandemic, while ensuring the legitimacy of the November election.
To the surprise of no one, congressional Republicans and Trump oppose such a move.
It is a plain fact that Republicans benefit when turnout is low, thanks to the reliability of their base among older, white voters. A nationwide vote-by-mail system, such as California's, would enlarge turnout in the states, by assuring that every registered voter received a ballot at their address, and would have sufficient time to return it, without being forced to weigh their civic duty against the risk posed by going to a public polling station.
Trump recently made clear the overt cynical calculation behind the GOP position on the Democratic effort to insulate the November election, when he told Fox News that, if the Democratic vote-by-mail plan was approved, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
In Congress, Democrats are pushing for expanded vote-by-mail to help states avoid a Wisconsin-like FUBAR in November. But for anyone naïve enough to imagine that the country would find a good-faith, common-sense, bipartisan solution for the challenges to election integrity posed by the pandemic, what is happening in Wisconsin should be sobering.
Trump himself is set to lead the effort to block pandemic-era reforms, claiming that mail ballots would encourage fraud. Of course he will be able to rally his base behind this idea.
Belief in massive voter fraud is a founding part of the Trump mythos, which insists that despite losing the popular vote in 2016 by 3 million votes, he would have won it if not for voter fraud.
Less overt, but equally deep, is the belief that more people voting is bad for Republicans. As always, Trump has been willing to say the quiet part out loud. Last week on Fox & Friends he claimed the Democrats had a plan “that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
So, expect a scorched earth campaign to block the reforms.
Exactly what the country needs right now.
Images: Voters standing in line outside a Milwaukee polling place. The tweeted Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel photo is captioned: "Milwaukee resident Jennifer Taff requested an absentee ballot almost three weeks ago, never got it. She has a father dying from lung disease and then waited hours in line to vote at Washington High School."; Charlie Sykes (realclearpolitics); Trump at a White House briefing standing in front of a face-palming Dr. Anthony Fauci; Sykes prepares to go vote (The Bulwark).
P.S. Here is an interview with the college senior and Journal-Sentinel intern who captured the image above.