Democracy in Wisconsin was killed in broad daylight

It’s been less than 24 hours since polls closed in what can only be described as the most undemocratic election that’s happened in this country in a long time.

Wisconsin went ahead with an election yesterday in the midst of global pandemic, one that’s now seen over 13,000 Americans die at the time of this writing. The state itself has not been immune to the COVID-19 virus. As of April 7th, the same day as the election that we just held, 2,578 people had tested positive for the virus. 92 people have died.

The areas worst affected by the virus, so far, are the same communities that have been ravaged by the systemic inequalities that have come from decades of racist policies at the local, state, and national level. Nearly half of the people who’ve died so far of the virus, in Wisconsin, are black. That matches a horrifying trend we’re seeing across the country, even in the very limited data we have right now. Poor communities of color are being upended by this virus more than any other.

Those statistics, alone, may make you wonder why Wisconsin went ahead with in-person voting yesterday. How could a state guarantee a free and fair election, that involved in-person voting, at a time that people were being ordered to shelter-in-place because of the spread of a deadly disease? How could they make that promise in good faith, especially when you consider that the local election officials were not equipped or prepared, at all, to deal with making in-person voting safe, or with the shear demand for absentee ballots that came? The answer is simple: Wisconsin Republicans knew the risk that the virus posed to people, but they didn’t care. They thought depressed turnout would help them steal an election for the State Supreme Court.

Republicans in our state government have already spent the better part of a decade trying to erect every barrier possible to keep people from exercising their most basic, and sacred right: the right to vote in an election. I detailed this in an article I wrote last fall. The comprehensive efforts they’ve launched here in Wisconsin, and elsewhere over the past decade, have been designed keep people, specifically black, Hispanic, and young people, from voting. Those efforts may have helped them get President Donald Trump over the top in the 2016 election in this state. It’s exactly why they took actions to suppress the vote.

Republicans have also tried to strip away the idea of one person, one vote. I wrote in detail about their efforts to gerrymander themselves into a virtually permanent majority in both chambers of the state legislature so they would never be held accountable by a majority of voters. Just an election cycle ago, they won 64 of the 99 seats in the State Assembly in an election that they lost the total votes cast by over 150,000. They then followed up losses at the state level in that election by engaging in a naked unconstitutional power grab that striped Governor Evers and others of many of their essential powers. None of this was the behavior of a party that truly believed in democracy.

What just happened on April 7th, however, is on a whole another level. Republicans destroyed any remaining appearance that they care about democratic governance.

Let”s lay out the sequence of events that just happened: Republicans in the state legislature went home for the rest of the legislative session a few weeks ago. Governor Tony Evers asked that they come back into session to pass a law that would allow local clerks to send absentee ballots to EVERY registered voter in this state so they could safely cast a ballot in this election. Governor Evers asked that this happen once is was obvious that in-person voting would no longer be safe due to the spread of the virus. They refused to do that.

Last week, Governor Evers called a special legislative session to address specific issues with the election, including an ask that the election be moved back a few weeks so that people could safely cast a ballot. At this point, it was plainly obvious that areas, like the City of Milwaukee, could not guarantee the safety of their poll workers, or ensure that voters could safely cast a ballot, in-person, without putting themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. Public health officials were warning that holding in-person voting, at all, could undo weeks of work that we’ve done so far to bend the curve of cases to keep our medical system from becoming too overwhelmed. The City of Milwaukee also believed they would only have enough personnel to have five polling locations available for a city of over 550,000 people, creating the potential for thousands of people to be in close quarters, especially in areas where the virus had spead most.

It was also becoming clear (I and my colleagues in the field heard this from countless people) that tens of thousands of voters who requested absentee ballots had never received them, including several people who had made requests weeks in advance. This even included State Representative Gordon Hintz, the Democratic leader in the State Assembly. It was obvious that election officials were simply overwhelmed by the number of absentee requests that had com in, and were not properly prepared to get people their ballots in a timely manner that allowed them to vote.

Once again, the Republicans refused to act. The legislature gavelled in-and-out of the session, on both days they convened, within seconds. Virtually no Republican even bothered to show up Madison. They had their chances to act, but refused to do anything.

After Republican lawmakers refused to act, Governor Evers took matters into his own hands. He issued an emergency order postponing the election until June 9th. The order said that the State Legislature would immediately come into session on April 7th to decide when the election should officially be held, among other things. Republicans immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this order. Within hours, four conservative justices on our State Supreme Court struck that order down. This is the same court that has refused to hold in-person hearings during this pandemic for safety reasons. Apparently it’s too risky for them to meet in-person, but not for voters to go to the polls.

The final blows would come in the final hours before polls opened. A pending federal lawsuit challenging rules surrounding the election had succeeded in getting the witness requirement for some individuals seeking to cast absentee ballots waived, as well as extending the deadline by which absentee ballots had to be received by the clerks from April 7 at 8PM to April 13 at 4PM. Republicans appealed that decision. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would strike down the witness waiver.

Then, on the eve of the election, the U.S Supreme court, along partisan lines, ordered that all absentee ballots must be POSTMARKED by election day in order to count. The decision made little mention of the pandemic, nor addressed the fact that their order was not grounded in any explicit state law. The Court felt it could tell people that they had to vote in-person during a pandemic at THE SAME TIME that they’ve cancelled all hearings due to healtha and safety concerns. This decision forced tens of thousands of people who had requested absentee ballots, but had not received them through no fault of their own, to have to CHOOSE between not casting a ballot at all, or endangering their lives by going to vote in-person on election day.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission would also render a decision that same night saying that people who had sent in absentee ballots without a witness signature, even if done during the brief period where that was allowed by a federal court, would be thrown out without the voter being able to cast a new ballot, in-person, to correct the issue.

All of this culminated to create the most undemocratic and chaotic elections we’ve witnessed in a long time. Just read some of these stories: 1) A woman who had COVID-19 was forced to ask organizers how she could safely get someone to sign her absentee ballot without endangering others. 2) This Milwaukee woman had voted in virtually every election in her life. She was unable to cast a ballot yesterday because she did not have the technology to request an absentee ballot online, nor did she know how to request one through mail. 3) Because of the lack of polling locations, or available public transportation near her, this woman was forced to walk over 55 minutes just to get her polling location. 4) My fellow organizing colleague, Kelly Ward, talked to a 94 year old man in Milwaukee who was severely ill. He was begging someone, ANYONE, to drive him to the polls so he could vote. He did not care that he would be risking his life to go vote. 5) These people were forced to go vote in-person in Milwaukee because their absentee ballots never arrived, including one man who had to go in-person to correct an error by the clerks who sent him his ballot.

These were just a handful of documented stories that we heard about yesterday. I too talked to many people over the past three weeks while working in the field. So many people, particularly the elderly, did not have the technology to be able to request an absentee ballot. Many lacked internet/technology to make a request, and/or didn’t know how to make a copy of their photo ID to send in with their request. Many lived alone and did not have someone who could sign-off as a witness for their ballot either. These barriers disenfranchised these people since they were at high-risk of dying if they contracted COVID-19 if they went out in public. Almost all had voted in every election prior to this one. This included Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Almost every single one was unable to vote in this election.

I also talked to dozens of people who had requested absentee ballots two or three weeks in advance of this election. Voters all over the state had made their requests. Many never received them. Some went and risked their lives to go vote yesterday. Many didn’t.

On top of these stories, there were the powerful images that visualized the failures of this election. Hundreds of people were lined up to vote in-person in Milwaukee, many of who lacked the proper protective gear to comply with CDC guidelines. Here’s another polling location where this happened in Milwaukee. There was still a line to vote that was over a mile long at one Milwaukee polling location well after polls closed. The same thing could be seen at this location in Green Bay.

While all of this was happening, Republican Assembly Leader, Robin Vos, was decked out in more protective gear than many medical personnel have AND NEED right now to protect themselves while trying to save people who are dying from the virus. He was literally telling people that it was “safe to vote” at the same time that the CDC was advising people to stay home unless they absolutely had to. He also lied on camera, telling people who didn’t receive their absentee ballots on time to ask that they be emailed to them after the WEC said hours before that election officials could not do that.

What just happened here wasn’t a democratic election at all. It was an illegitimate election. That holds true no matter who wins when results are released in a few days.

Republicans have made it clear, for all to see, that they’ll embrace any and all means to hold power. That’s the behavior of a party seeking to install an authoritarian, one party state. It’s not the behavior of a party that believes it is truly accountable to the people.

Republicans have also demonstrated that they are not “pro-life” at all. Hundreds, if not thousands of Wisconsin residents will likely end up infected with COVID-19 because of what happened yesterday. Some who were exposed, and who will become infected, will die. The Republicans in our state legislature, the conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the conservative Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have blood on their hands.

Voting is literally the most basic and sacred right that all of us have. We aren’t a democracy without it. That right, for many, was thrown out the window yesterday. No one should EVER have to risk their life to exercise this right.

The Washington Post’s slogan is: “Democracy dies in darkness.” It doesn’t. Democracy in Wisconsin was just killed in broad daylight for the whole world to see. Everyone should appalled and outraged by the injustices that just happened here. And, if we don’t act now, this will happen in other places in the months ahead.

Now is the time to get in this fight. Democracy is literally on the line this November. If we’re going to save it, we need everyone to do their part. It’s time we take a stand as a country. It’s time that we end this mess. It’s time to vote these Republicans out of office.

I can’t thank my colleagues enough, and everyone else who worked their asses off to make sure people’s voices were heard. I’m also in awe of those who who were willing to risk their lives to vote yesterday. My promise to you, and everyone who was disenfranchised, is that we’ll fight to make sure everyone knows where these people stood in November.

Sign this petition if you agree that what happened here is an outrage, then find a candidate or cause to support and sign up to volunteer.

I also encourage you to call our state representatives and let them know what you think. You should also reach out to your Congressperson and Senators and urge them join Senator’s Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Ron Wyden, and others in demanding that essential election protections, universal vote by mail, and expanded early voting are included in the next bill Congress tries to enact. It’s time they step up to the plate and fight to save our democracy as well.

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