The coronavirus pandemic has upended primary elections across the country. Most states have moved their remaining elections to late May or June—dates that now seem a little too optimistic. The Alaska Democratic Party, which is slated to hold its presidential primary in a few weeks, switched to an all-mail election. So did its Wyoming counterpart, which scrapped the planned April caucus in favor of ballot drop-off sites.
The exception is Wisconsin, where it’s full steam ahead for a primary election next Tuesday. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, bowed to internal party pressure on Friday to call a special session of the Republican-led state legislature. He summoned lawmakers from the Republican-led chambers to consider legislation to move the primary to mid-May and mandate the use of mail-in absentee ballots for all voters save the disabled, for whom polling stations would remain open exclusively.
Whether GOP lawmakers in the state will agree to even the most commonsense reforms, however, is in doubt. For the last decade, Wisconsin has been the epicenter of GOP efforts to permanently entrench themselves in power at the state level. Under former Governor Scott Walker, Republicans passed a series of voter-ID laws and other restrictions that the state’s GOP attorney general credited with swinging the state to Donald Trump in 2016. The state legislature is so heavily gerrymandered that Republicans can win just under 50 percent of the vote and capture nearly two-thirds of the legislative seats.
Now the president is reportedly embarking upon a multimillion-dollar effort to combat Democratic efforts nationwide to ensure Americans can readily cast their votes throughout this crisis. It’s the culmination of 10 years of partisan warfare over voting rights, during which Republicans insisted that their motives were pure and their efforts were solely about preventing voter fraud and ensuring the integrity of the vote. Their actions in the middle of the pandemic confirm what was already clear: that it was all a lie.
Universal voting by mail, I noted last month, is essential to maintain the integrity of state, local, and federal elections during the pandemic. Without it, tens of millions of Americans could be compelled to stand in line at polling places in close proximity to one another just to participate in the democratic process. The nation’s ersatz army of poll workers, many of whom are old enough to fall within the highest-risk groups for Covid-19, would be placing themselves at risk for constant exposure. Many of these poll workers might make the completely reasonable decision not to put themselves in danger, which could potentially grind the electoral system to a halt.
That’s what’s happening in Wisconsin right now. A federal judge rejected a legal bid to delay the election on Thursday night but agreed to extend absentee voter registration and take other steps after hearing testimony about the looming crisis. “In the city of Madison, 67 percent of poll workers are over 60 years of age, falling within the at-risk category for COVID-19, and 32 percent of poll workers have canceled their assigned, in-person voting shifts,” he wrote. “Madison also limited in-person absentee voting to curbside voting and eliminated voting at other early voting locations. Similarly, the city of Milwaukee has reported that it no longer has sufficient staff to operate its three, in-person early voting locations, also eliminating the ability to register in-person before the election, although as the intervening defendants point out, drive-up early voting remains available through April 5.”
Those intervening defendants—the state and national Republican Party—said they would appeal the ruling. Preventing this impending disaster also doesn’t seem to interest Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald or House Speaker Robin Vos. Instead they seemed more eager to pin the blame on Evers’s “feckless leadership,” a fairly ironic criticism given the underlying circumstances. “Our Republic must continue to function, and the many local government positions on the ballot must be filled so that municipalities can swiftly respond to the crisis at hand,” they said in a joint statement shortly after Evers’s announcement of a special session. “We continue to support what Governor Evers has supported for weeks: the election should continue as planned on Tuesday.”
The most charitable explanation for this behavior would be a bizarre form of muscle memory. Perhaps 10 years of relentless voter suppression have now left the Republican Party ill-equipped to reckon with the pandemic’s looming threat to elections. Maybe they have too thoroughly trained themselves to see the false specter of voter fraud in even the most justified expansions of voter access. But the likelier explanation is that conservatives are so constitutionally incapable of tolerating the possibility of an election system that isn’t rigged in their favor that they’re willing to risk the lives of others to maintain the status quo.
Note, for example, how congressional Republicans recoiled from a Democratic proposal last month to expand voting by mail in the Phase III coronavirus stimulus bill. “Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it,” Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie warned on Twitter, quoting a Twitter user who suggested Democrats were trying to rig the 2020 elections. “I agree with [Massie],” Utah Senator Mike Lee added in a Twitter post of his own. “Regardless of what one might think about voting by mail, Congress has no authority to enact a universal vote-by-mail mandate.”
In fact, Congress has often used legislation to mandate certain requirements for state-run elections, especially when there are federal candidates on the ballot. Elsewhere in the country, Republicans made the basis for their resistance more clear. The Georgia secretary of state’s office plans to send absentee ballots to every registered voter in the state, to the apparent dismay of state House Speaker David Ralston. “This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia,” he reportedly told a local news outlet. “Every registered voter is going to get one of these.... This will certainly drive up turnout.”
That perspective also drives the top of the ticket. “The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump claimed in a Fox and Friends interview last month, referring to Democratic proposals in the Phase III bill negotiations. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” It was a refreshingly honest concession by a politician more accustomed to telling lies. And it also underscores the motives behind the raft of voter-suppression measures Trump has overseen over the past three years, ranging from a short-lived voter-fraud commission to a Census-rigging effort that was nixed by the Supreme Court.
The deep and disturbing irony in all this is that these efforts will end up hurting Republican voters most of all. It’s Trump and his down-ballot allies who benefit most from a strong turnout among older voters, a demographic that the president carried in large numbers in 2016. Trumpworld spoke often last month about sacrificing the elderly to ensure the economy would continue to function—a macabre, misguided strategy at best. Now they’re asking older Americans to sacrifice themselves so they can hold onto power just a little bit longer.