All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. – Albert Camus, The Plague

Governor Tony Evers has reversed course and has called a special session of the legislature to abandon in-person voting for the spring election, to send a ballot to every registered voter by May 19 and to allow absentee ballots to be counted if received by May 26. The special session is called for 4:00 PM today (Saturday) but the Republican-controlled legislature is expected to ignore the governor’s requests.

Until recently, Evers said the April 7 election had to take place as scheduled claiming that local governments would be left without leadership during the Coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, in a brief to federal court concerning the extension of the absentee ballot deadline just a few days ago, Evers still defended in-person voting on April 7.

“Ultimately, a predominantly-by-mail election, with limited but available in-person voting, would be an achievable middle ground that would help protect Wisconsinites’ right to vote, while also helping to keep them safe,” the Evers Administration wrote on March 31.

What changed?

One, Evers’ fellow Democrats began publicly expressing their frustration that the governor was not pushing to end in-person voting. 

“There’s this enormous conflict between what we need to do in a democracy in the midst of a pandemic. You can’t have a stay-at-home order but then tell millions of people to go stand in line and congregate near one another across the state,” Racine Mayor Cory Mason, a former Democratic state representative, told Politico. “Having an election in the middle of a stay-at-home order makes no sense. It did not have to be this way.”

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin itself jumped out ahead of Evers in calling for a delay in the election, and Politico found another Democratic leader who was even harsher in his criticism.

“It’s been a cataclysmic failure,” a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist and Evers supporter told Politico. “It has been disappointment after disappointment. I do not believe that he’s shown leadership or good judgment during this crisis.”

Two, it’s impossible to ignore the possible Democratic concern about the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. Absentee voting so far appears to be favorable to Republicans as more conservative areas of the state are outperforming Democratic strongholds in returning their ballots. 

Election numbers expert Joe Handrick looked at the incoming absentee ballots from key counties and discovered Waukesha and Washington counties are outperforming their bigger Democratic rivals.

Waukesha County alone has nearly as many absentee ballots returned as Milwaukee County. That is not good news for the liberal challenger, Madison Judge Jill Karofsky. 

This is a tremendous change in expectations for Democrats who were expecting a huge turnout for the Democratic Presidential Primary Election to give Karofsky the votes needed to defeat incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. With the decline of the importance of the presidential primary and the Coronavirus hitting Democratic areas of the state harder, Democratic enthusiasm for the election has apparently waned. Republicans are still turning out the votes, however.

But does that mean ending in-person voting for this election is a bad idea? If the election goes on as scheduled, under the current circumstances, its legitimacy will be in doubt regardless of the outcome whether it favors the Democrats or the Republicans.

Health experts are warning that the spread of the Coronavirus will be the worst over the next two weeks. Wisconsin municipalities are warning that they do not have enough poll workers. This is not surprising since many Wisconsin poll workers are elderly and are therefore the most vulnerable to the disease. 

Polling sites are being reduced across the state. The city of Waukesha, for example, will only have one polling location. The governor is hoping to use the National Guard to fill the gaps, but given the late-planning by the Evers’ Administration this will be an inadequate response. Milwaukee, for example, could literally have thousands of people waiting in lines at polling stations, many unwittingly carrying the disease. 

Telling people to stay home if showing symptoms is not a solution, either. The disease is actually contagious among people who are not showing symptoms but are nonetheless infected. Finding out that a poll worker or someone voting has the Coronavirus after they’ve exposed countless others is a nightmare for local officials. 

Those who do show symptoms also have the right to vote, too. Planning on Election Day voting and then discovering you have the virus should not eliminate your right to vote.

What about just delaying the election? There may not be a convenient “later” time for in-person voting.

While the Coronavirus outbreaks may peak in the next two weeks, it does not mean that the spread will simply end after that period. We can expect outbreaks of the Coronavirus to continue, and it will hit in areas not previously exposed. And if/when social distancing measures are relaxed, we can expect rates of the spread of the disease to go up again. 

As different communities are hit, how many times will we postpone the election?

But this does not mean Republicans in the legislature should cave to Evers’ demand that the state mail ballots out to every registered voter. The potential for vote fraud would be absurdly large, and was made even more likely by the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s refusal to remove over 200,000 registrations from the voter lists after they were identified as people who have moved. 

Instead, Republicans should consider a serious response to the governor’s call for a mail-in election: 

  1. Delay the election until Tuesday, June 2. That includes the special election in the 7th Congressional district, currently scheduled for May 12.
  2. Allow Wisconsinites to request absentee ballots through the end of April.
  3. Allow local clerks to “fix” absentee ballot issues, such as improper voter ID or unreceived ballots, by May 15.
  4. Allow drive-up voting for special circumstances May 26 to June 1 with the National Guard assisting.
  5. Extend the terms of local offices until June 15 to allow time for elections to be certified.

Delaying the election will allow for candidates, the political parties, and the public to adjust to the reality of a mail-in election. If it is made clear that the election will be mail-in only, with very few exceptions, then it will be on the voters to be proactive to acquire the ballots and mail them in before the new deadlines.

As we’re adjusting to a mail-in only election, some allowances will need to be made to help fix ballot identification issues. This does not mean relaxing the standards. It does mean that clerks should be given the opportunity to address incorrect ballot information before the ballots are counted. Extending the election to June 2 gives the time for that to happen.

One GOP legislator told RightWisconsin that some people will not be able to vote if it is a mail-only election. It is hard to imagine those circumstances, since absentee balloting was originally invented to help voters who could not be present on Election Day, not vice-versa. Nonetheless, the law can have limited exceptions built into it so local clerks can plan accordingly. 

That we’ve come this close to an election with no plan for how it is to be held is a failure of both political parties, but mostly with Evers. He has consistently supported keeping the April 7 election despite the stay-at-home orders and the increasing numbers of people infected with the Coronavirus. He has also not shown any signs of working with the legislature on addressing the issue, and the latest announcement with how it was handled is another indication that the call for a special session of the legislature was likely a cynical ploy to put the blame on the Republicans if the election goes awry.

Evers’ move without consulting the leaders of the legislature and developing a consensus first will only put more doubts into the minds of the voters of the legitimacy of the election. He may score some quick political points, but the cost is dear.

However, that does not mean that Republicans should react to the governor’s grandstanding with grandstanding of their own. As the recent Florida primary has shown, there is a legitimate public health issue of holding an election during a pandemic. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) made an unwise statement comparing standing in line for possibly hours with hundreds or thousands of people to vote to picking up carry-out food at a restaurant. It’s as if they are still in denial over the possible impact of the spread of the Coronavirus disease.

Instead of coming up with laugh lines for a Rush Limbaugh audience, Vos and Fitzgerald should take the opportunity to pass a reasonable plan for the election. In the vacuum left by the governor’s lack of leadership, they need to be the responsible leaders Wisconsin needs.