We have all heard the phrase “This is the most important election of our lifetime.” This time probably more than ever. But even more popular these days is a version of, “This is an unprecedented time,” and it’s not because of the election. It’s the result of the biggest economic and public health emergency most of us have ever seen. The coronavirus, more technically known as COVID-19, has spread with rapid pace across the world and the United States – the soon to be epicenter for the virus – is nowhere near having it under control. As a result, major lifestyle changes have been enacted in the last 3 weeks from stay-at-home orders to the largest stimulus bill in U.S. history, these changes have left many confused on how we should move forward on the election. States are taking many different approaches but, the state of Wisconsin that has almost 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, has chosen to hold its primary election in person on April 7th leaving many people feeling like they have to make a choice between health and democracy. This is the result of a highly partisan and historically divided state government that lacks the democratic norms and unity that have held the United States together for centuries.
As of now, the world is on pause. Many states have decided to deal with the virus differently including Florida’s governor refusing to shut down its beaches (until Late March) and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo using the national guard to create a containment area in New Rochelle. Each state is trying to find the balance between liberty, public health and the economy. This also includes Wisconsin which enacted a stay at home order on March 23rd. However, the state decided to push forward with the election deeming it an essential activity.
This election is the result of a one-sided fight between the Democratic governor Tony Evers and the Republican legislature (and the Wisconsin Supreme Court). This situation has been seen as a strong act of partisanship and a disregard for democratic norms – a criticism that has been leveled against the state government for many years.
In a recent shift, Wisconsin chose to elect Tony Evers as the Democratic governor, instead of Scott Walker (R.) while also re-electing a Republican legislature. Although, Tony Evers and state lawmakers were originally on the same page in keeping the in-person election. This changed last week when the poll workers started pulling out because of safety concerns. The concerns over safety and ability moved the governor to ask the legislature to change the elections voting system to move to a fully absentee, mail-in ballot system through a special legislative session. The choice to change to mail-in ballots for all registered voters sparked anger from the right and led to partisan comments to the press. Some calling it, “a complete fantasy” and the result of “special interests”. After this, the special session ended in less than 10 minutes and resulted in no movement toward a resolution for the election. With a strong partisan block and no time to compromise, the governor chose to shut down the election himself with an executive order. This was immediately sent to the state Supreme Court and within a few short hours the conservative majority rejected the order and said in person voting would still take place.
The facts of the Wisconsin primary election show a level of democratic erosion that is indicative of other states but unprecedented in its pace. This level polarization both damages democracitc ideals and also creates an “us versus them” mentality that can lead to gridlock and a lack of mutual toleration. Partisanship as explained by Milan Svolik can lead to takeovers but, more importantly it leads to an allegiance to partisan interests rather than democratic ones. She states in Polarization versus Democracy that, “Ordinary people are willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan interests.” This pushes legislators to have a duty to their party and their leaders than a duty to democratic and civic ideals. In-person voting during a time that requires six feet distance between you and any others and facemasks does not match the civic ideals that American democracy claims to possess.
Strong partisanship leads to further polarization which can in turn dissolution voting and democracy as a whole. The notion that Evers wanted mail-in ballots for partisan reasons speaks to the level of partisan rhetoric in the Wisconsin political sphere. In understanding Svolik’s basic generalization, the case of Wisconsin’s election piece’s together the deep differences between voting in the two main parties. Oftentimes, when mail-in ballots are used and more people have the opportunity to vote it benefits people with lower incomes and minorities, most of whom lean democratic. Republicans, that for many years have pushed back against voter expansion, fought for their personal ideals rather than the greater good, in this case. An in-person election disregards some of the larger concerns for democracy and rally’s on the technicality that the governor cannot make an executive order to change how the state votes.
The secondary issue, I believe, with the decision to have in-person voting, is the lack of healthy democratic norms exhibited and the use of judicial review to possibly help consolidate republican power and avoid full responsibility for the situation. As explained by Ozan Varol in “Stealth Authoritarianism,” a judicial system controlled by one ideal (like in Venezuela) can lead to a consolidated power to the point where opposition is nearly impossible. Republican backlash could then be seen as an appeal to push the election a certain way – especially for the state elections for supreme court. In Wisconsin the Republican state lawmakers knew that the Supreme court’s conservative majority would be on their side and some of the down ballot races would eventually decide the new Supreme Court and its decision in the future on key Republican issues.
The choice of Wisconsin legislators to pick consevative partisan politics over civic duty to voters, is why Wisconsin is beginning to look like a democratically eroded state. The historical issues between Republicans and Democrats in the state, led to a drawn out partisan fight and the eventual choice to use a body (designed to be shielded from politics) to do the dirty work without blame.
1. Barbaro, Micheal, host, Herndon Astead W., guest, “Wisconsin Pandemic Primary,” The Daily, New York Times, April 8th.
3. Richmond, Todd. “GOP calls Evers mass ballot mailing idea “complete fantasy”. March 27th, 2020. Accessed April 7th, 2020. https://apnews.com/687cbb0e6a162b8f3e831a2e5cf76d85
4. Svolik, Milan W. “Polarization versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 3 (2019): 20-32. doi:10.1353/jod.2019.0039.
5. Richmond, Todd. “GOP calls Evers mass ballot mailing idea “complete fantasy”. March 27th, 2020. Accessed April 7th, 2020. https://apnews.com/687cbb0e6a162b8f3e831a2e5cf76d85
6. Weigel, David. “The fear and politics surrounding voting by mail.” April 2nd, 2020. The Washington Post.https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/paloma/the-trailer/2020/04/02/the-trailer-the-fear-and-politics-around-expanding-voting-by-mail/5e84980e602ff10d49ada414/
7. Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Part I.