Wisconsin and the Future of Voting
Few elections in recent history have taken place under similar adversity as Wisconsin’s 2020 primary election. Democrats and many in the media have been quick to cast conservatives -- especially the justices on the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Court -- as the “vote-suppressing” villains who forced voters to the polls last Tuesday.
In today’s hyper-polarized political climate, in which nothing, not even the integrity of our elections, is off limits, one expects nothing less. But this one-sided narrative paints a wildly distorted picture of what happened in Wisconsin.
Ultimately, the system worked. The people of Wisconsin had the chance to exercise their right to vote, and there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the results. But there are relevant lessons to be learned as we look ahead to the challenge of responsibly adapting the rest of this year’s elections in light of the current coronavirus pandemic.
For weeks ahead of the election, both the Republican-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, insisted the election should go ahead as scheduled. The plan was to encourage heavy absentee voting to avoid large crowds at polling places, and indeed more than one million ballots were cast -- a record.
Clearly, it is reasonable to consider delaying an election, as more than a dozen states have done. But the chaos in Wisconsin owes far more to the vexatious litigation brought by partisan operatives and activists than to the date it was held. Their efforts prompted a judge to rewrite election law on the fly, leaving the state in legal limbo, with no firm resolution until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling the night before the election.
Then, Evers’s last-minute claim that he was canceling the election -- something even he had acknowledged he legally could not do -- added fuel to the fire, leaving everyone uncertain whether there would even be an election, and prompted a legal fight of its own in the state Supreme Court.
Even before the polls closed, the political effort to shift blame to the courts had begun. But if voters are looking for someone to hold accountable, they should look not to judges who faithfully apply the law, but to their elected officials and the partisan operatives and activists who went to court to force changes they could not win through the normal legislative process. If we continue on that path, we invite a debacle on a national scale.
Wisconsin was a flash point in an already contentious election cycle, and it clearly will not be the last. That’s especially true if politicians and activists continue to exploit the pandemic to force sweeping changes that would expose American elections to fraud and risk the trust of voters.
In this difficult time, it is essential that we make it easy and safe to vote, but as hard as ever to cheat. There are politicians who insist that we must choose between these options, but voters should see that for what it is: a politically motivated false choice. Beginning now, states need to devise realistic contingency plans to meet the challenges of voting in this pandemic, including expanded absentee voting so that vulnerable people have the option to apply for, and cast, ballots from the safety of their homes.
But we must also be mindful of the vulnerabilities associated with ballots distributed in the mail. Voting outside of polling places is inherently less secure than in-person voting. In 2018, a concerted effort to collect, alter, and destroy hundreds of absentee ballots led to a North Carolina congressional race being thrown out. The conspirators used door-to-door vote-harvesting tactics to get their hands on ballots and disenfranchise voters.
That means states must strengthen voter integrity laws, including bans on vote harvesting, so that every voter’s most basic civil right -- the right to vote in fair and honest elections -- is protected.
We should also categorically reject calls for permanent new voting schemes, like the proposals put forward by House Democrats last month. For one thing, Murphy’s Law applies to elections: the more ways we tinker with the voting process, the more things can go wrong. The Iowa caucus debacle earlier this year is a stark reminder that even relatively minor changes -- much less whole new voting schemes that are untried and hastily assembled -- can wreak havoc on an election.
Also, trying to implement all-mail voting by November presents logistical and election integrity challenges that are quite probably insurmountable. America’s voter rolls are riddled with errors -- researchers for the Pew Center on the States found one in eight to be outdated or wrong -- raising the disturbing prospect of huge numbers of ballots winding up at the wrong address or sent out in the name of deceased or ineligible voters. That would open the door to widespread fraud.
A national vote-by-mail election would also raise the prospect of election-day litigation on an unprecedented scale, in which elections aren’t decided on Election Day by voters but are decided days or weeks later in court by partisan attorneys and legal maneuvering.
Now more than ever, it is crucial to ensure that it is both easy -- and safe -- to vote, but hard to cheat. The challenges posed by this pandemic to our elections are significant, but none are greater than the risk of acting hastily and undermining the integrity of our democracy in the process. Fortunately, we can meet this challenge responsibly, and deliver an election that is safe, secure, and respected by all.
Jason Snead is the Executive Director of Honest Elections Project.