April 6, 2020

There is complicated news about voter suppression tonight out of Wisconsin. It has overridden today's news of the extraordinary outburst of Trump’s acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, who flew almost 8000 miles to Guam to harangue the sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

I'll cover the Modly story later in the week, but for tonight, Wisconsin.

There is a crucial election there tomorrow that landed tonight at the US Supreme Court. The backstory is that in 2010, thanks to REDMAP the Republican Redistricting Majority Project I wrote about on Saturday, the Wisconsin legislature was controlled by Republicans. They worked to guarantee their control, gerrymandering the state so effectively in 2011 that in the 2012 elections, Republicans lost a majority of voters, but took 60% of the seats in the legislature. (They won only 48.6% of the votes, but took 61% of the seats.)

With this power, they promptly passed a strict voter-ID law that reduced black and Latino voting, resulting in 200,000 fewer voters in 2016 than had voted in 2012. (Remember, Wisconsin is a key battleground state, and Trump won it in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes.)

Now, there is a move afoot to purge about 240,000 more voters from the rolls, thanks to the old system called “voter caging.” The state sent letters to registered voters, largely in districts that voted Democratic in 2016, and those who did not respond to the letters have been removed from the voter rolls on the argument that the fact they didn't respond to the letters must mean they have moved. Initially, the purge was supposed to happen in 2021, after the election, but a conservative group sued to removed them earlier and a conservative state judge, Paul V. Malloy ordered it done. Malloy’s decision has been appealed to the Wisconsin state supreme court, which has deadlocked over the issue by a vote of 3-3.

On tomorrow’s ballot is a contest for a seat on that court. The Republicans desperately want to reelect their candidate, Justice Daniel Kelly, who recused himself from the voter purge vote pending the election. Trump has endorsed Kelly, who will uphold the purge if he is reelected. Before the pandemic, observers thought Kelly’s opponent had a good chance of unseating him because of expected high turnout among Democrats. But now, of course, all bets are off, especially since the Democratic strongholds in the state are in the cities, where the residents are hunkered down.

The election was originally scheduled for tomorrow, but the pandemic has gummed up the works. A stay-at-home order went into effect in the state on March 25, and more than a million voters have requested absentee ballots. But this huge surge means the state is running behind and hasn’t been able to deliver the ballots. Meanwhile, roughly 7000 poll workers, who are volunteers and often elderly, have said they would not come manage the election, so a large number of polls can’t open. The city of Milwaukee, whose 600,000 people normally would have 180 polling places, will have five. Milwaukee tends to vote Democratic.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, tried to get the Republican-dominated legislature to postpone the election or to mail ballots to all voters for a May 26 election deadline, but it refused. Over the weekend, the mayors of Wisconsin’s ten biggest cities urged the state’s top health official, Andrea Palm, to “step up” and use her emergency powers to replace in-person voting with mail-in voting, as Ohio did when faced with a similar problem. On Monday, Evers signed an executive order postponing the election until June 9—something even he was unsure he had the power to do, but he said he felt he had to try to keep people safe-- but Republicans challenged the order and the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court blocked it.

Last Thursday, a federal judge permitted absentee ballots to be counted in the election so long as they arrived back to election officials by April 13, but Republicans immediately challenged the decision. Tonight, in a 5-4 decision, the US. Supreme Court refused to permit this extension of time for the state to receive absentee ballots, arguing (apparently without any self-awareness) that the federal judge made a mistake by changing the rules of an election so close to its date. This means that absentee ballots have to be postmarked tomorrow, even if the voter hasn't gotten one by then.

The court insisted that the issue in the decision was quite narrow, and had nothing to do with the larger question of the right to vote. The four dissenting justices cried foul.

Writing for the four other judges in dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.” “The majority of this Court declares that this case presents a “narrow, technical question”…. That is wrong. The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic. Under the District Court’s order, they would be able to do so. Even if they receive their absentee ballot in the days immediately following election day, they could return it. With the majority’s stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety, or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own. That is a matter of utmost importance—to the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens, the integrity of the State’s election process, and in this most extraordinary time, the health of the Nation.”

The New York Times editorial board echoed Ginsburg, warning that what is happening in Wisconsin, where Republicans are trying to use the pandemic to steal an election, could happen nationally in 2020. This is why Democrats tried to get robust election funding in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill to bolster mail-in ballots, and why Trump said: “The things they had in there were crazy, they had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to, you would never have another Republican elected in this country again.”

This crisis in Wisconsin has national implications. The reelection of Kelly will likely mean Wisconsin loses another 240,000 voters, most of them Democrats. This will increase Trump's chances of winning the state in 2020, and Wisconsin is likely key to a victory in the Electoral College.

This is why I watch the minutia of politics so carefully. 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.

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Notes:

Wisconsin situation:

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/wisconsin-redistricting-found-to-unfairly-favor-republicans.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/13/us/wisconsin-voter-rolls-purge.html

https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/04/02/wisconsin-election-judge-extends-absentee-voting-but-keeps-vote-date/5112276002/

https://lawandcrime.com/2020-election/ruth-bader-ginsburg-goes-off-on-conservative-majority-for-jeopardizing-voters-safety-amid-pandemic/

https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/491376-wisconsin-governor-suspends-in-person-voting-amid-coronavirus-outbreak

https://patch.com/wisconsin/milwaukee/wisconsin-election-results-supreme-court-race

https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/06/politics/wisconsin-primary-election/index.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/politics/supreme-court-voting-wisconsin-virus.html

Ginsberg closing:

Mail in voting in 2020: https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/490905-vote-by-mail-advocates-dial-up-pressure-on-republicans-to-provide-more

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/opinion/wisconsin-primary-coronavirus.html