Nobody should have to choose between their vote and their health, but Wisconsin voters faced this decision due to reckless and politically-motivated actions taken by the Republican Party and a complicit United States Supreme Court.
As COVID-19 forces stay-at-home orders and social distancing, numerous states have postponed their primary elections in the name of public health. This is the right decision. Having people leave their homes in the middle of a pandemic and gather en masse at polling places, interacting with others and touching shared surfaces, is clearly a recipe for disaster.
In order to protect his constituents, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers tried to postpone the state’s primary election until June. However, the GOP had other plans.
The GOP sued to keep the April 7 election date, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a five to four ideological split, the conservative justices voted to allow the election to be held on the original date. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, joined by the other three liberal justices, dissented, saying that continuing to hold the election “will result in massive disenfranchisement.”
This disenfranchisement of voters was clear during Election Day. Fears over COVID-19 led to a shortage of poll workers and widespread poll closures. Milwaukee, a diverse city with about 600,000 residents, had their usual 180 polling places reduced to just five. This led to hours-long lines with people having to wait outside during bouts of rain and hail. Overall turnout was down significantly from 49 percent in the 2016 primary to 31 percent. This lower turnout can in part be attributed to only one party having a competitive primary, but the influence of coronavirus can also not be overlooked.
Though Wisconsin has no-excuse absentee voting, which allows people to vote via mail instead of in-person and is one of the most promising ways to vote during a pandemic, Wisconsin’s system has many issues. Some voters did not receive their absentee ballots despite requesting them. Another major issue was that the appeals court upheld a requirement that every person who submits an absentee ballot must have a witness sign their ballot before it can be returned. For people who are self-isolating or live alone, this can be a major barrier to voting.
The inability for some people to vote was not a coincidence, it was a coordinated strategy to disenfranchise certain voters. COVID-19 is mostly concentrated in the urban areas in Wisconsin, such as Milwaukee. Therefore, many of the less diverse suburban and rural areas did not experience the same poll closures and fears compared to the larger, more diverse cities. It is evident that holding the in-person election was a thinly veiled action on the part of the state GOP to disenfranchise diverse voters who overwhelmingly support Democrats.
The most important race on the ballot was not the Democratic primary, instead, it was a Wisconsin state Supreme Court race. There is currently a lawsuit pending before the court about a move by the state legislature to purge more than 200,000 voters from the voter rolls. The decision will have repercussions for the 2020 election, given that President Donald Trump won Wisconsin by exactly one percent in 2016. The purging of the voter rolls is a move by the GOP to help Trump and once again disenfranchise young people and minorities. Wisconsin voters clearly understood the importance of this race, as they elected the Democratic judicial candidate in a shocking upset.
As infuriating and saddening as it was to witness this blatant act of voter suppression, it was still inspiring to see voters determined to exercise their basic rights. These were people who were willing to struggle for their vote. They were willing to stand for hours in the rain and the hail. They were willing to put their own safety at risk all to exercise their right to vote.
However, there is something that we all can learn from this. So often when I talk to people on campus about voting, they say it is too hard or too complicated. We don’t know “hard.” “Hard” is knowing that you can either put your life at risk and go to the polls or stay home but allow the fraudulent election of a judge who may take away your right to vote. Going to the polls took courage. So many people in this country and around the world cannot vote, but they would — and often do — risk it all for that right.
So the next time there is an election and you aren’t sure if you want to take the time to vote, think about the people who went to the polls in Wisconsin. Let their courage inspire you to participate in our democracy in a way that many people cannot.
Isabelle Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.