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On Monday, after a bill to delay Wisconsin’s primary languished in the state legislature, Democratic Governor Tony Evers signed an executive order to postpone the state’s primary until June, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak that has already sickened at least 2,440 Wisconsin residents and killed 83 people in the state.
But mere hours later, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that the election must go on as planned. (Dan Kelly, the conservative Supreme Court judge up for re-election on Tuesday, abstained from the ruling.) Worse, the court ruled that absentee ballots must be postmarked or hand-delivered to one of the five absentee ballot drop-off locations by Tuesday, overriding a federal judge’s order to extend absentee voting. As of Tuesday morning, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reported receiving just 67% of the absentee ballots requested.
The state legislature’s GOP leaders, Rep. Robin Vos and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, issued a joint statement on Monday night praising the court’s decision. “The state’s highest court has spoken: the governor can’t unilaterally move the date of the election,” it read.
Even if Wisconsin was prepared with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), holding a statewide election in the midst of a pandemic would pose a giant risk. But as in many other states, Wisconsin is dealing with a severe PPE shortage. As a result, people who work outside their homes — from home health aides, to construction workers, to grocery store cashiers — risk exposure to the virus. Throwing thousands of voters across the state into that risk pool will not help. It’s not a question of whether Wisconsin voters will get sick as a direct result of Tuesday’s vote, but how many.
Before Evers issued his executive order, Republican state lawmakers had refused to reschedule the election. Thousands of poll workers stepped down to protect themselves from exposure, and Milwaukee — the most populous city in the state — has only five polling locations open on Tuesday, down from 180 polling locations around the city. A video from Tuesday morning showed a line of Milwaukee voters snaking around a polling place, then into a parking lot, then around the block in an attempt to maintain social distancing.
Poll workers across the state are facing an impossible choice: help other Wisconsinites vote, and put themselves and their community at risk in the process, or stay home. “I’m a poll worker in Milwaukee. I’ve been wrestling with what we’re being asked to do tomorrow,” Philip Rocco, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University, tweeted Monday night. “We’re being asked to put our neighbors at risk. We’re being asked to be infrastructure for an illegitimate election. I refuse to participate.”
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state court’s ruling Monday night, with a majority opinion that seemed embarrassed by its own faux naivete: “The Court’s decision on the narrow question before the Court should not be viewed as expressing an opinion on the broader question of whether to hold an election, or whether other reforms or modifications in election procedures in light of COVID-19 are appropriate. That point cannot be stressed enough.” This raises a few questions, namely: What makes Wisconsin so special that it must continue its election as planned, while 15 states have already postponed their primaries? What is the imperative here, outside of giving Republicans a boost via massive voter disenfranchisement?
Vos and Fitzgerald are faces of the modern Republican Party. They don’t practice governance through shows of brute force — not yet, at least — but through the underhanded power plays that have come to define my home state for the past decade. They both played an integral role in the union-busting legislation rammed through by Governor Scott Walker in 2011, and they have fought rabidly to enforce the state’s suppressive voter ID laws. And after Wisconsinites kicked Walker out of office in 2018, Republican lawmakers called a lame-duck session with the explicit goal of stripping Evers of the executive powers Walker was allowed to exercise.
Vos has made his priorities as a public figure abundantly clear. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Vos said after the 2018 midterm elections. To Vos and his allies, any election results that come out of the state’s two biggest cities are inherently illegitimate because they are Democratic. It is the same sick tautology that props up cries of “fake news!” Inconvenient data isn’t a burden if you decide it’s not real.
It’s no coincidence that Milwaukee, the most populous and diverse city in the state, will bear the brunt of Tuesday’s electoral malpractice. COVID-19 is already hitting black Wisconsinites disproportionately hard. Black residents make up 28 percent of Milwaukee County, yet as of Monday, 33 of the 45 county residents who died of COVID-19 — 73 percent—were black. This is the monstrous endpoint of the decades-long campaign of hyper-segregation, austerity and disenfranchisement that has pushed black Milwaukeeans to their breaking point.
Republicans — not just in the White House, but in statehouses across the country — are actively working to make their states less safe for their hardest-hit residents. People are being forced to leave their homes and go work — literally putting their lives at risk — because their unduly elected representatives would see them die before pausing the smooth flow of capital upstream.
Republicans aren’t the only leaders showing extreme negligence in the face of this pandemic. Last week, the Democratic National Committee announced it would postpone its national convention in Milwaukee until August. Former Vice President Joe Biden suggested hosting a virtual convention, while DNC Chair Tom Perez told the New York Times that he doesn’t support the idea of a virtual convention because it would attract less media attention.
In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Biden argued there’s no reason to alter the course of the election because of this pandemic. “We’ve never allowed any crisis from a Civil War straight through to a pandemic in ‘17, all the way around, in ’16, we have never, never let our democracy take second fiddle, we can both have a democracy and elections and at the same time protect the public health,” the Democratic frontrunner said.
Election administrators are already drastically under-resourced. By putting this further strain on them, conservatives in the state legislature and on the state supreme court are essentially demanding elections officials pretend an illegitimate election is legitimate. As things stand now, the presidential election in November could very well look like one Wisconsin multiplied by 50.
To Vos, Fitzgerald and politicians like them, Tuesday’s farce is a win-win. That’s because their goal isn’t fighting this virus, but eroding democracy to the point of extinction so they can cling to power. The virus is a helpful ally to sowing confusion and chaos, and ensuring that people are already too stressed and terrified to do anything when they set the building on fire.
So, what have we learned in all this? We’ve learned that Republicans are not above exploiting a global health crisis to suppress votes, and in fact welcome the opportunity, no matter how many lives they put at risk in the process. The idea of one person, one vote is distasteful to them because otherwise, as the president himself told Fox and Friends last month, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The actions of Vos, Fitzgerald and politicians in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country make that point abundantly clear. It’s all out in the open. They are showing you exactly who they are.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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