Welcome to Wisconsin, where democracy goes to die | Editorial

Posted Apr 09, 2020

The core pathology of the Republican party is that it views electoral participation and voter turnout as threats.

In a way, the GOP is not wrong: On Monday, President Trump affirmed that reforms designed to eliminate suppression would lead to “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Kudos for candor.

So the Republican campaign to protect the power of its shrinking minority of plutocrats against the democratic will rolls on, and if Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin is an example of where that campaign is heading, one must wonder how far Trump and his party are willing to go to retain that power in November.

Toward this end, the Badger State was turned into a civic punchline by its Republican legislature, which used the COVID crisis for a power grab. With the country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and the state already under a stay-at-home order, Wisconsin’s lawmakers refused to reschedule the primary, essentially smothering the turnout for the sole purpose of re-electing a single key judge to the state supreme court.

Not everyone thought this was prudent. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, sought to convert the primary to a vote-by-mail format and extend balloting until May 19, which would keep people from breathing on each other at polling stations.

So the GOP legislature went to court. And after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a lower court opinion that had changed the date and extended the absentee ballot deadline — with Trump’s appointments casting the deciding votes, mandating that the show go on — the State of Wisconsin put the lives of their voters at risk and held the primary as scheduled.

You probably saw what happened next: Workers at hundreds of polling stations were no-shows, and lines became intolerable — and more dangerous — in the most urban venues. Milwaukee, which has 330,000 voters and the state’s largest minority population, opened just 5 of its 180 polling sites, with wait times averaging 2 hours. Green Bay had only 2 polling places, downsized from 31.

The urban voters who turned out — young and old, white and black, all masked up and spaced out on sidewalks — refused to surrender to their fear of COVID 19 or to the dystopian operation choreographed by their legislature.

They did their patriotic duty the same day that 1,970 Americans died of the virus.

In a way, it was an ineffably poignant tribute to their democratic process.

But a large cardboard sign held by a college kid outside the polling station in Milwaukee nailed the zeitgeist: “This is ridiculous,” the sign read.

As we’ve noted before, the only way to ensure voter participation in the COVID era is a national vote-by-mail model, which five states (including progressive Utah) now use exclusively. But clearly, that is a heavy political lift: The first thing the new Democratic House majority did last year was to introduce HR1, which simplified registration, limited gerrymandering by turning districting over to an independent commission, and created a federal voting holiday.

On cue, Mitch McConnell responded with fake outrage: “Just what America needs,” the Senate leader kvetched. “Another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work for, I assume, our colleagues on the other side."

Actually, it would be a day of patriotic expression, which is anathema to the Senator whom historian Christopher Browning described as “the grave digger of American democracy.”

For now, with November just 7 months away and COVID refusing to divulge its expiration date, we only know this: One party has proven that it will be comfortable forcing Americans to choose between their health and a sacred right of citizenship.

It might be the most chilling sign we’ve ever had that our democracy needs a fix.

And it is the most compelling evidence that the power must return to those in whom it should be rightly invested.

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