This past week, the state of Wisconsin, with help from the federal judiciary, put on a master class in dysfunctional government.
The number of last-minute changes on Monday was head-spinning. All three branches of government contributed to an unbelievably chaotic runup to Tuesday’s spring election. The legislature did nothing but gavel in and out of an adjourned special session. Gov. Tony Evers then announced that he was postponing the election until June 9 — even though he admitted he did not have that power just days earlier. Predictably, the Wisconsin Supreme Court intervened at that behest of Republicans in the legislature to declare the election was back on.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court got in on the action, nixing a common-sense provision put in place by federal judge William Conley to extend the absentee ballot deadline until April 13.
The end result of all this madness was that Wisconsinites had to choose between exercising their right to vote and risking further spread of the deadly coronavirus. This came after weeks of the state government telling everyone to stay at home if at all possible and to only go out for necessary activities like buying food or going to work at an essential business.
Talk about the ultimate mixed message.
Sure, you could say that voting is “essential” for our democracy, which it most definitely is. However, major limitations have been placed on every other aspect of life — including some that are supposed to be protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Think back to March 17, when Gov. Evers issued an executive order to close all of the bars and restaurants in Wisconsin and also limited public gatherings to no more than 10 people. This applied to churches as well, essentially banning regular worship services until the pandemic subsides.
Of course, if you ask public health experts, these drastic actions were justified to “flatten the curve,” saving countless lives and protecting our health care system from being overrun. If you’ve seen any news about New York City in recent days, you should know why these actions were necessary.
Still, this begs the question, if our state government was willing to infringe on the First Amendment rights to “peaceably assemble” and freely exercise our religions, then why did the governor and lawmakers wait until the last minute to address the sacred right of voting? As soon as Gov. Evers crossed the threshold of limiting in-person contact, he should have simultaneously proposed either a delay of the election or a switch to absentee- voting only.
Instead, he dithered for weeks, while Republicans in the legislature did nothing to come up with a reasonable compromise. Other states managed to figure it out ahead of time, but not Wisconsin. Now, footage of Milwaukee residents standing in ridiculously long lines while trying to maintain social distancing is making the rounds across the nation.
Unfortunately, we smell the foul stench of politics underlying this whole fiasco. If voter turnout plunged in “blue” urban areas like Milwaukee while staying the same or going up in “red” rural areas, Republicans will have gotten what they wanted — in the worst way possible. Their efforts to block increased absentee voting seem to support this idea.
Because absentee ballots will still be counted for the rest of this week, we won’t know the results until next Monday or possibly Tuesday. If a noticeable shift in voter participation emerges, that could be an ugly sign of things to come. Our part of Wisconsin has a special Congressional election coming on May 12, and there’s still the Aug. 11 primary, and of course, the Nov. 4 presidential election.
We hope that Wisconsin can figure out a safer and more practical way of holding this year’s remaining elections, one that doesn’t discourage voter turnout. Exploring the feasibility of mail-only elections seems like a good start. Other states do it all the time. Why can’t Wisconsin?
The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien