Wisconsin’s Warning for the November Election

How are people expected to vote if they’re not supposed to even leave their homes?

Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Updated at 2:53 p.m. ET on April 6, 2020.

“I’m accused of trying to conduct a voter purge in the state of Wisconsin,” Rick Esenberg told me by way of introduction. Esenberg runs the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which is suing to force the state’s election commission to remove hundreds of thousands of “inactive” voters from the rolls.

I had called Esenberg to ask about the in-person election that Wisconsin was planning to hold tomorrow even as its citizens are under a statewide directive to stay at home amid the coronavirus outbreak. Democrats, including Governor Tony Evers, want to conduct the election by mail so that Wisconsinites don’t have to risk their health to go to the polls. The Republican-controlled state legislature is rejecting that idea—even though some studies suggest that voting by mail helps Republican candidates more than Democratic ones.

Why would Republicans oppose a measure that could make it easier—and safer—for people to vote? They’ve cited the logistical and legal hurdles of mailing every Wisconsin voter a ballot in such a short period. But at the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over the fundamental goal of the proposal—maximizing the number of people who can exercise their right to vote.

“I’m not one of these people who says that’s necessarily an unalloyed good,” Esenberg told me. “To some extent, I do believe that if people are not willing to make some effort to vote, maybe that indicates that they’re not that interested and they’re not going to inform themselves, and it’s just as well that they don’t vote.”

To conservatives like Esenberg, prioritizing turnout as a benchmark is a mistake.

“Should we evaluate the fairness of our voting laws simply by how many people vote, and that’s sort of the sign of a functioning democracy?” he said. “I don’t know that that’s true. Everybody votes in Cuba, but nobody thinks that’s a well-functioning democracy. I don’t worry as much about how many people vote. I think there’s a lot of people who aren’t particularly interested in voting.”

Whether the election will happen tomorrow is unclear less than 24 hours before polls are due to open. Evers today issued an emergency order to postpone it until June 10, but GOP leaders said they’d immediately challenge the move before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where conservatives have a majority.

Until this morning, Wisconsin officials were proceeding with the election in defiance of other states that have postponed theirs in recent weeks. In part, that decision was due to the importance of the state’s elections. The Democratic primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders is not the only contest on the ballot; voters must choose a new justice to sit for the next decade on the state’s highest court, and thousands of local offices for mayor and other positions are also up for grabs.

Voters might have to venture out to precincts even as a shortage of poll workers due to the coronavirus has forced a drastic reduction in numbers of polling places. They’d be able to cast an in-person ballot at just five sites in the state’s biggest city, Milwaukee; Waukesha, a city of 70,000, will have only one place to vote.

What Evers is trying to do in Wisconsin—mail every voter a ballot—is what Democrats want to do nationwide in case the pandemic reemerges in a second wave this fall. Esenberg warned that if state officials tried to mail every voter in Wisconsin a ballot, “you’re going to wind up mailing hundreds of thousands of ballots to people who are not eligible to vote at that address.

“That’s very problematic when it comes to ballot integrity and public trust in our elections,” he told me. “Maybe there was some reason that we should have kept these voter rolls accurate, so that we wouldn’t have this kind of problem.”

Republican leaders in Wisconsin have taken the same position. They have said that the last-minute push for all-mail balloting is “logistically impossible” in so short a turnaround, and “an invitation for statewide voter fraud.”

“Making such a dramatic change in how we do elections in a crisis is probably not good public policy,” Andrew Hitt, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, told me on Thursday. “That’s how you do poor public policy, by doing it in a hurry.”

GOP leaders are resisting any relaxation of the state’s strict voter-ID law, which requires citizens to upload a photo to a government website before receiving an absentee ballot. A federal judge’s ruling on Thursday gave Democrats only a partial victory by extending the deadline to request and submit absentee ballots. Evers called the legislature back for an emergency session this weekend to try to force lawmakers to eliminate in-person voting entirely, but the effort failed. State officials have another several months to expand vote by mail before November, but don’t expect the additional lead time to change the Republican opposition.

Four western states—Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the GOP bastion of Utah—already run their elections predominantly by mail, and mail ballots make up a large portion of the vote in California, Montana, and Arizona as well. Hawaii will transition to all-mail voting this year.

“It’s not like it’s only been implemented in blue states or blue areas,” said Amber McReynolds, who as the director of elections in Denver helped design Colorado’s mail-balloting system. She now runs Vote at Home, an advocacy group pushing for the adoption of vote by mail across the country. “We’ve seen it expanded in lots of states that are very red as well, and they’re reaping the benefits not only from increased turnout but also from reduced costs,” she told me. “Certainly rural voters benefit from this type of system,” she added.

But many Republicans still see these efforts—like other reforms such as automatic registration and early voting—merely as Democratic plots to rig elections to their advantage. GOP congressional leaders rejected a bid by Democrats to require states to make universal vote by mail available this fall and, in the most recent relief package, agreed to only $400 million in additional election funding instead of the $2 billion Democrats requested to help states build out their election infrastructure.

In vote-by-mail states, election officials verify that ballots are valid by matching the signature of the voter to the one they have on file. In Colorado, first-time registrants also have to submit a copy of their ID. The challenge for officials in states like Wisconsin, which is already seeing a record surge in requests for absentee ballots, is that they must move quickly to prepare for the deluge in the fall, whether by changing laws or simply boosting staff and equipment. “We have to make it as efficient as possible so that it doesn’t overwhelm local clerks given that we’ve seen staffing shortages across the country,” McReynolds said.

The chaos in Wisconsin ahead of tomorrow’s elections, she told me, “is illustrating why implementing vote by mail in the current laws is going to be really challenging. There’s going to have to be some shifts in thinking in order to scale it.”

Judging by the partisan (and intraparty) sniping in recent days, the outlook for that shift happening in Wisconsin isn’t good. “A firestorm of public opinion is probably the only thing that has a snowball’s chance in hell of moving the GOP at this point,” the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, Ben Wikler, told me.

Hitt, the state GOP chairman, blamed Democrats for wasting time on lawsuits that they could have spent mobilizing their voters to cast absentee ballots. He said that Republicans have sent ballots to older GOP voters and filmed new tutorials on submitting the required photo ID. “Our push is to vote, to vote in any way you deem you’re able to vote,” Hitt told me.

Wikler said that he wondered whether the Republican opposition to expediting all-mail voting was due to surveys that indicate GOP voters are less afraid than Democrats of venturing out to polling places during the pandemic. “It’s a moral atrocity to suggest that the strength of your immune system should determine the strength of your rights in a democracy,” he told me. “There is no defensible reason to prevent people from voting by mail without leaving their homes.”

Democrats will be making this argument across the country in the weeks and months ahead, as the possibility of holding a presidential election during a pandemic becomes more likely, and the imperative to expand options beyond in-person voting becomes paramount.

The endorsement of one Republican could probably make a difference: President Donald Trump. But he is no fan of expanding vote by mail, or of maximizing turnout in general.

“The things they had in there were crazy,” President Trump complained on Fox & Friends, referring to the Democratic proposals to encourage mailing a ballot to every American this fall. “They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”