On April 7th, 2020, states all around the nation watched as the implosion of Wisconsin’s government occurred as there was a tug of war between a conservative state Supreme Court and a democratic governor. As a resident of Wisconsin to say this was the first case of attempted voter suppression would be a lie, however, voter suppression in the state had never been more obvious than during the 2020 Spring Election and Presidential Primary. The global COVID-19 pandemic is not causing voter suppression, it is merely making light of it. What occurred in the Wisconsin spring elections demonstrates the erosion of the state’s government but also reflects the weakening of democracy in the nation as a whole.
Democratic backsliding is a concept that is used to describe state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy . In simpler terms, backsliding is the breakdown or weakening of existing democratic institutions for undefined ends . Scholars argue that backsliding occurs for a number of reasons. Nancy Bermeo argues that there are three modern day methods of backsliding: promissory coups, executive aggrandizement, and strategic harassment and manipulation . Strategic harassment and manipulation is most pertinent to the United States and constitutes any actions that tilt the electoral playing field in favor of the incumbent, such as hampering media access, using government funds for incumbent campaigns, obstructing voter registration, and changing electoral rules to favor incumbents .
Wisconsin is a perfect example of democratic backsliding in the form of strategic harassment and manipulation. In the beginning of April, during the initial shock of the pandemic, Governor Tony Evers attempted to pass multiple orders to ensure every citizen in the state of Wisconsin could exercise their right to vote. Backsliding in Wisconsin was well established under the Governor Scott Walker era with the passing of some of the harshest voter ID laws in the nation, restrictive early voting hours, changing the laws regarding absentee ballots, changes to polling place regulations, and Wisconsin becoming one of the most gerrymandered states in the country . In response to these oppressive laws, Judge Frank Easterbrook, has commented that the voting restrictions in Wisconsin were quote on quote “acceptable because Republicans who controlled the legislature were not discriminating against voters based on race, but based on their political affiliation” . The erosion of democracy in Wisconsin has been slowly but surely occurring and the pandemic has further exacerbated the issues.
Upon approaching the April 7th election, Governor Evers proposed legislation to automatically mail a ballot to every registered voter in the state. Evers also attempted to pass a last ditch effort order to push back the election to a later date. The reason behind these orders is that there were a lack of poll workers and polling places due to the pandemic and it was simply a public health issue to vote in person at the time. With conservative majorities on both the state and federal Supreme Courts, Republicans shot down the governor’s emergency order to close the polls . The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Evers’ emergency order, and reopened the polls . Reinforcing the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court added that a temporary extension on absentee voting would be overturned in a 5-4 vote . What occurred in Wisconsin was backsliding at a state level that was further strengthened at the federal level.
Official voting day in Wisconsin was a mess to say the least. In Green Bay, which was one of the hardest hit cities with cases of COVID-19, polling sites were reduced from 31 to 2 . Similarly, Milwaukee had under 3% of its typical 180 polling sites . Even if you were to arrive at these polling sites and arrive in person, your health was severely put at risk due to incredibly long lines and masses of people. With long wait times, there was still no guarantee you would be able to officially cast your vote.
The April 7th election in Wisconsin, set a fearful standard that this could be the norm for voting with the pandemic. Wisconsin partakes in backsliding through the passing of many voter suppression laws and unfortunately with the pandemic, these laws have been magnified. Wisconsinites thought that there would be positive change with the election of Governor Evers, but unfortunately with a conservative state Supreme Court and Legislation, backsliding continually occurs. Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): pp. 5-19, https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.  “Scott Walker’s Record on Voter Suppression,” One Wisconsin Now, accessed October 24, 2020, https://onewisconsinnow.org/scott-walker/voter-suppression/.  Sam Levine. “Court Reinstates Wisconsin Voting Restrictions in Victory for Republicans.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 30, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/30/wisconsin-voting-restrictions-reinstated-republican-victory.  Ruth Conniff, “Voter Suppression in Wisconsin Could Go Nationwide in 2020,” Wisconsin Examiner (Wisconsin Examiner, April 10, 2020), https://wisconsinexaminer.com/2020/04/09/voter-suppression-in-wisconsin-could-go-nationwide-in-2020/.  Daphne Chen et al., “’Voter Suppression At Its Finest’: Wisconsin Citizens Say Missing Ballots, Lines and Coronavirus Kept Them from Being Counted in Election,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, April 13, 2020), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/voter-suppression-wisconsin-election-missing-ballots-lines-coronavirus-covid-19/.
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