Policy Summary: On April 7, 2020 the State of Wisconsin held a statewide election that also included a primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On March 24, 2020, at the direction of Governor Tony Evers, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary – designee Andrea Palmer issued a stay at home order for the residents of Wisconsin to try and slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
With the upcoming statewide election and primary scheduled for April 7, 2020 Governor Evers came under pressure to try to postpone the election because of worries about COVID-19 spreading at in – person polling booths. On April 2, 2020 Judge William M. Conley issued an order in a court case refusing to postpone the election but extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be received to April 13, 2020.
On April 4, 2020 Governor Evers called a special legislative session in order to get the Wisconsin Legislature to hold the election entirely by absentee ballot. However, the session was quickly terminated by the Republican controlled chamber with no action taken which eased the way for the April 7 election to continue with in – person polling booths. On April 6, 2020 Governor Evers tried one last attempt to postpone the election with an executive order even while he conceded that he did not have the legal authority to postpone the election. His executive order was appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which ruled against the executive order which again allowed the election to proceed in – person.
On the same day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee. That case concerned the absentee ballot process in Wisconsin. In its opinion, the court relied on a strict technical reading of state law in requiring absentee ballots to be mailed and postmarked by Election Day. They noted that the plaintiffs never asked in court papers for absentee ballots mailed and received after Election Day to be counted which is why the court did not decide that issue. Thus, absentee ballots in the state could be received up to April 13th per Judge Conley’s order but had to be postmarked and mailed by Election Day and no later per the U.S. Supreme Court.
Policy Analysis: The election is notable because it was held during the COVID-19 pandemic and a stay at home order issued by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor Tony Evers. In the run up to the election there were significant government actions at the state and federal level that caused concern that the election was not conducted under the most optimal circumstances.
What made this Wisconsin election interesting to observe was the political motivations that went on behind the scenes. Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the choice whether to venture outside and to public places to cast a vote could have had life and death consequences for many people. Many residents of Wisconsin began clamoring for the election to be held by absentee ballot but the Republican Party in Wisconsin pushed hard to have the election occur because they wanted a state supreme court justice to win the election over his Democratic challenger. (Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices serve ten – year terms and then are up for re – election). Republicans in Wisconsin reasoned that the COVID-19 coronavirus would keep many Democrats at home thus ensuring that Republican backed Justice Daniel Kelly would win. This reasoning pushed the Republican controlled legislature to block and appeal every effort taken by Governor Tony Evers to postpone and change the election to an all ballot election. It was clear that the Republicans in Wisconsin did not prioritize the health and safety of the state’s citizens. They simply wanted to manipulate the COVID-19 virus as a way to keep one of their own on the bench.
In addition to the motivations regarding a seat on the state supreme court, Republican legislators also tried to manipulate to their advantage the absentee ballot process in the state. With the COVID-19 virus sweeping through the nation, many residents sought to convince Wisconsin state officials to have the election by mail. However, transitioning to an all – mail election would have taken time and it would not have been likely that every single resident eligible to vote would have had an absentee ballot in hand for the April 7th election. The proper course of action would have been to extend the deadline to have the absentee ballot postmarked. However, numerous residents claimed that on the eve of the election that they did not even have an absentee ballot yet. Republicans in the state took a hard line on this issue – in the Wisconsin Legislature on April 4th they refused to consider the issue of moving to an all absentee ballot election and in the U.S. Supreme Court they relied on an obscure technical legal rule that does not favor changes to an election so close to the election date. While the law may have arguably been on the Republicans side on this issue, their obstruction tactics in the state legislature and argument in the two court cases gives off the image that Republicans are not interested in having a fair and safe election. This episode shows that Wisconsin Republicans were only interested in party politics and not in encouraging a safe, free and fair election.
However, residents in Wisconsin ended up having the last laugh. Voter turnout in Wisconsin for the election was unusually high, even during rain and sleet in some areas, and Republican backed state supreme court justice Daniel Kelly was defeated by liberal challenger Jill Karofsky by more than 163,000 votes. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
- Brennan Center for Justice – group’s report on absentee ballot voting in the U.S. for 2020 election.
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin – Wisconsin ACLU group’s statement on COVID-19’s influence on primary and suggestions for future elections.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.