A while agoI wrote about the problems faced by those nations which have elections scheduled during the period when life is likely to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In general, I argued that postponement is better than trying to hold an all-postal election in any country where that is not the norm.
Yesterday, the state of Wisconsin in the USA went ahead with their primary. This article, taken from the Washington Post’s 5 Minute Fix newsletter, explains why this was a bad idea – far worse than an all-postal ballot. You can (and should) sign up for the 5 Minute Fix here.
There’s no good way to hold an election in a pandemic. But Wisconsin, which is holding its primary in the middle of an extremely deadly week in the United States, is demonstrating exactly what not to do.
How did this come about? There was delayed action by the governor, last-minute court cases about whether the election could go forward and political fighting about whether to allow more people to vote by mail. The result is that the election was confirmed to be on only the night before, hundreds stood in long lines to vote and hundreds of ballots submitted during the confusion could be thrown out because of all the changing rules.
“We decided to risk our lives to come vote. I feel like I’m voting for my neighbors, all the people who don’t have the luxury to wait this long.” — Milwaukee voter Ellie Bradish, 40, to The Washington Post
Here’s what led to this in Wisconsin and what we can learn from it so voters in other states aren’t forced to do the same in primaries later this year or even the general election in November.
Wisconsin didn’t delay the primary. At least 20 other states have moved their primaries back to June or July. That’s a big decision. It means voters will have to wait months longer to chime in on local, state and congressional elections and the Democratic presidential primary. But numerous state leaders decided that putting voting on hold was the best of bad options.
The Republican legislature would not approve all-absentee ballots. In most states, the legislature has to change state law about how an election works. While Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, did not try to push back the election, he did ask state lawmakers to approve mailing absentee ballots to every voter. The Republican legislature declined, even when Evers forced them into a special session days before the election.
Republicans — from state lawmakers all the way up to President Trump — have said they fear what will happen to Republican candidates when more people vote because voting is easier. This is a political fight that’s going to play out across the country. On Tuesday, Texas Democrats sued the Republican governor to demand that the state make the switch to mailing voters ballots for upcoming elections.
Wisconsin also hasn’t seriously considered all-mail voting. The safest way to vote in a pandemic would be for all of us to vote from home with mail-in ballots. That’s different from absentee voting, which in many states requires voters to first fill out an application for a ballot. But just mailing every voter a ballot isn’t easier. Only five states have the ability to do this, and they spent years putting all the pieces together, like buying high-quality machines that can quickly count millions of ballots and doing voter-eduction campaigns about how to fill them out correctly.
Still, a number of states that don’t want to force their voters to the polls will decide in the next few weeks whether they’re going to try to set up mail voting anyway rather than send voters into long lines like the ones we are seeing Tuesday in Wisconsin.