Wisconsin Voting is a Mess

As Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson has pointed out, the sudden eruption of problems in Wisconsin elections this week has national importance, since it serves as warning for what could happen on the third of November. As she puts it, “It’s hard to imagine that the election of a state judge in Wisconsin matters to our nation of fifty states and 330 million people, but it does. Oh, boy, does it.”

The Wisconsin legislature, controlled by a Republican majority after their redistricting push, has been using voter-ID laws and “voter caging” to consolidate power. (In voter caging, the state sends registered voters letters to “confirm” they are still there; when people do not respond, they are dropped from the rolls. Cox Richardson explains this disadvantages would-be Democratic voters, especially African-Americans and Latinos.)

Justice Daniel Kelly of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is an incumbent up for re-election today. He was appointed to the court by Governor Scott Walker, to complete the unexpired term of his predecessor, David Prosser. In that 2010 redistricting fight, Kelly represented state Republicans in a federal trial. If re-elected, he will uphold the decision for voter caging, against an appeal that currently has the state supreme court deadlocked.

President Trump has endorsed Kelly, presumably because Wisconsin is a battleground state, which Trump won with fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has not been able to deliver absentee ballots to all the million voters who requested them in the pandemic. A stay-at-home order was issued March 25, but the voting process as it exists presupposes most voters will appear in person. Many Democratic voters are clustered in the cities, where infection rates are higher due to exposure, and, in general, poll volunteers are often elderly and at higher risk of complications from infection.

Many polling places are closed. Early reports show turnout is not high at some of those, where the National Guard, dressed in civilian clothing, is helping to keep things running. In Milwaukee, on the other hand, voters stood in lines stretching for “blocks,” at the few remaining polling locations, trying to maintain social distancing.

The Director of Community Engagement for ACLU of Wisconsin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “People seem to literally be taking their life into their hands to attempt to vote.”

Wisconsin’s Democratic Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes tweeted, “Good morning and welcome to the Shit Show! Today’s episode has been produced by the Supreme Court and directed by the incomparable Speaker and Senate Majority leader duo. Buckle up, this one’s sure to disappoint!”

Jon Loomis, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, told me he voted at a Baptist church five minutes from his home. There were no lines, and only about five other people were voting at the time. He recognized the “usual volunteers…retirees from around the neighborhood,” and said it was possible the “couple of hardy-looking younger guys outside, asking everyone who came in how they were feeling—if they had a fever, cough or sore throat,” may have been National Guard, but they were not in uniform.

Loomis said Eau Claire, as a university town, is a “blue oasis” in that part of the state.

He had requested absentee ballots twice. His replacement ballot was mailed yesterday. “In Eau Claire, there’s no across-town, next day mail delivery,” he said, “it all goes to the regional sorting facility in Minneapolis and then comes back here—minimum turnaround two days, more like three.”

When his ballot did not come in time, he donned nitrile gloves and a skull-and-crossbones bandana to go vote. A volunteer inside the door of the church handed out disposable pens, and there was tape on the floor to mark distances. All the volunteers were wearing gloves, but not all wore masks.

As of today, there are 21 cases of COVID-19 in Eau Claire County, and no deaths.

On Facebook, Loomis cusses the “brutal and unforgivable abuse of power” that has brought on this situation, which follows “attacks on teachers and other public workers, then…Wisconsin’s unionized workers, then Voter ID and other forms of voter suppression, then the blatant gerrymandering of our legislative map, then…attempts to strip [Democratic Governor of Wisconsin] Tony Evers of the very same powers they willingly granted to Scott…Walker. Now this—forcing people to run a viral gauntlet in order to vote. […] Forgot to mention the destabilizing cuts to UW system and public schools while predictably cutting taxes for the rich.”

Loomis wants credit for a prediction: “[I]f a miracle occurs and Kelly loses, the Republicans will challenge the result on the basis of mass confusion over absentee voting. Guaranteed—you saw it here first.”

“The funny part,” he told me, shortly after he had returned from voting, “is that my absentee ballot showed up in the mail about ten minutes ago.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.