Gov. Tony Evers’s gambit to deflect responsibility for the debacle of Wisconsin’s April 7 election by peremptorily canceling in-person voting at the last minute seems to have worked. At least judging by the reaction online, where most of the blame for the scenes of long lines at polling places was being laid at the feet of Republicans in the state legislature and the state and US Supreme Courts, but not Evers. Some distempered commentators even accused the Wisconsin GOP of endangering voters’ lives ‘to protect its minority rule’.
This feels like an era-defining image pic.twitter.com/rgEwnhmk8O
— Don Moynihan (@donmoyn) April 7, 2020
Ridiculous indeed. And Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature aren’t innocent. But the mess is mostly of Gov. Evers’s own making.
The most prominent contest on the ballot was the Democratic presidential primary. But that race was all but over thanks to Joe Biden’s historic reversal of fortune. The contretemps is really because voters will also be filling a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Currently, Republicans have a 5-2 majority. A Democratic victory would cut that edge to 4-3 and allow Democrats to seize the majority the next time a seat is on the ballot.
With the judicial election coinciding with the presidential primaries, it was hoped the Democrats’ having a competitive one while Republicans’ was uncontested would provide a turnout boost that would put the Democratic candidate over the top.
To secure this advantage, when Rep. Sean Duffy resigned from Congress for family reasons, instead of scheduling the special election to fill the remainder of his term for April 7, Evers picked May 12 as its date. Evers seemed motivated purely by partisan considerations about the state Supreme Court race. Instead of scheduling the special election at the same time as the spring general election, which might have neutralized Democrats’ apparent edge in the Supreme Court contest, Evers chose a date a month later.
Evers’s machinations ensured Republicans wouldn’t lift a finger to help him. But at first Evers didn’t lift a finger to help himself, either, as the timeline makes clear.
When he announced the first coronavirus restrictions in Wisconsin on March 16, banning gatherings of 50 or more people, Evers didn’t postpone the election. Because it was a general election for many state and local offices whose terms were expiring, he argued, it would be difficult to push it back and leave them open. He also said that there was no guarantee things would be better in May or June, an assertion he repeated a few days later.
Polling places were exempt when Evers tightened his restrictions on gatherings, and when he finally instituted a stay-at-home order on March 25, he still refused to delay the election. Instead, he touted his efforts to provide poll workers with safety equipment. ‘Nothing has changed from my vantage point,’ regarding the election, he affirmed on March 30.
As late as a week ago, Evers insisted he had no authority to delay the election.
We have three branches of government to ensure a system of checks and balances, and questions about our elections typically rely on all three playing a role. If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law.
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) April 2, 2020
But by this time the frustrations of other Wisconsin Democrats were boiling over as localities across the state announced the closure of numerous polling places because election workers were too scared to work the polls.
At this point Evers called a special session of the Wisconsin legislature so it could pass a bill moving Tuesday’s election. The Republican leadership promptly adjourned the session after about 10 seconds.
Finally on Monday, Evers ordered the election postponed. Republicans appealed, and the state supreme court ruled that the governor lacked the authority to move the election. Separately, the United States Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision allowing Wisconsinites to send in absentee ballots after April 7. The decision is crude and inelegant, but as National Review’s Dan McLaughlin explained, the proper one. This comedy of errors culminated in Tuesday’s traveshamockery.
Evers’s dithering and fecklessness is the primary cause of the imbroglio, but Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have hardly covered themselves in glory. Their attitude to Evers, which can be summed up as ‘choke on it’, is understandable given how he tried to manipulate the state Supreme Court race. Even now, there are suspicions he moved to reschedule the election only after data suggested the Democrat was going to lose.
But at some point both sides have to place the welfare of the state’s citizens above score-settling. James Widgerson of the RightWisconsin website came up with a decent compromise in which both the April 7 and May 12 elections would be moved to June and absentee balloting expanded. It is a decent proposal, one both parties should have considered. Republicans won the fight. Conciliation would not only have been magnanimous; it would’ve been the right thing to do.
It’s not just Wisconsin that has to worry about how COVID-19 will affect elections. Primaries were postponed, not canceled; many states will still be voting this spring. And this November, the entire country will vote. Republicans in Congress are right to oppose Democratic schemes to use the crisis to impose progressive desiderata like early voting and voting by mail across the country. But accommodations of some kind will probably be necessary.
Voting can be dangerous sometimes — in the Jim Crow South or a Third World dictatorship. But for Americans in 2020 exercising your right to vote shouldn’t mean you’re taking your life into your own hands because doing so might expose you to a potentially fatal disease.
Because of their intransigence, pettiness, and vindictiveness, that is just what Wisconsin’s leaders have done. To their undying shame.