It’s become fairly common in the 21st century to talk about “a life-and-death election,” and the performance of President Trump these recent months as the coronavirus crisis came to America proves that’s not always hyperbole. But as I write this on Tuesday morning, in the great state of Wisconsin, Republicans are putting a brand new spin on the term. They are forging ahead with an election that could literally kill some of their constituents.
Do you think that’s hyperbole? Consider Florida, which — led by its reality-denying Trumpist GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis — plowed forward with its March 17 primary, at a time when the risks of the global pandemic were known but far fewer Americans had been infected. Two poll workers in Broward County who dealt with dozens of voters later tested positive for COVID-19. The dangers Tuesday in Wisconsin — where virus infections have been accelerating in Milwaukee’s predominantly black neighborhoods — are exponentially higher.
So ... “On, Wisconsin!” And the push for a Badger State primary with in-person voting to go ahead — even as every other comparable state has either postponed their primary, or gone to all mail-in voting, or both — has been almost strictly a Republican affair. Wisconsin’s GOP-led legislature rebuffed an effort by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — elected in 2018′s anti-Trump backlash — to postpone the vote, and when he tried to invoke emergency executive powers, the conservative state Supreme Court (which figures heavily in all this ... I’ll explain in a moment) blocked that.
What we are witnessing here in real-time is one insidious GOP pathology — a yearslong assault on the voting rights that underpin American democracy — morphing into something much, much sicker. On Tuesday morning, voters in Milwaukee — many wearing masks, struggling to keep a distance of six feet — lined up around the block at the city’s just five polling places (down from a normal 180, because of so few volunteers in a time of coronavirus) to wait possibly hours, and also increase their risk of infection, to vote. For Republicans in Wisconsin’s statehouse and its courts, this incredible hardship in voting was a feature, not a bug.
And what exactly is so damned important that Republicans are willing to, in an only loosely metaphorical sense, shoot a man or two in the middle of Milwaukee’s 5th Street and get away with it? It’s not the supposed marquee election, the Democratic presidential primary (possibly the last contested one of 2020) between Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. No, the big concern is over a low-profile special election between a Republican and a Democrat to fill a vacancy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It’s exactly the GOP’s dominance in this type of low-profile election — ignored by much of the public even as billionaire pro-business donors pump in huge wads of cash — that’s enabled their war on American democracy.
It’s complicated, and Republicans want to keep it that way and keep average folks clueless about the tricks they use to thwart the will of the majority of the people who live in a state like Wisconsin. In reality, the whole criminal enterprise is a massive Jenga structure that will collapse in dozens of shattered pieces if you can just pull out one of them, which is why the GOP is literally fighting to the death to keep voters from doing that in Tuesday’s election.
The key pivot occurred 10 years ago, in 2010, when a fired-up conservative base, whipped into a frenzy by talk radio and Fox News during the first two years of America’s first black president, turned out for midterm elections in a way that complacent (sigh) Democrats did not. Wisconsin was an epicenter — a new GOP governor, Scott Walker, and a majority in the state’s legislature enabled a rollback of a century of pro-worker laws in a once proudly progressive state, even as tens of thousands of protesters jammed the capitol in Madison.
But the 2010 Republican victory also enabled other less publicized schemes aimed at ensuring conservative political control after the pendulum swung back toward the left, as it inevitably did. By winning in a census year, Walker and GOP lawmakers had free rein to gerrymander the state legislature and make it all but impossible for the Democrats to win back a majority. This has worked like a charm; in 2018, as the political mojo was moving left, Democrats won 190,000 more raw votes for the state House in Wisconsin, yet, incredibly, Republicans rode their unfair computer-aided map to win 63 out of the 99 seats, a big majority.
But that’s not all. In 2011, Walker’s GOP-led government also enacted one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, which not only required a valid photo ID to vote but clamped down harsher-than-usual restrictions on what is valid. In that life-and-death presidential election in 2016, experts estimated that some 300,000 eligible Wisconsin voters — most in groups such as college students and African-Americans — were turned away, the deciding factor as Trump unexpectedly won the state by just 22,000 votes. Trump’s victory also ensured that the right wing would keep its grip on the U.S. Supreme Court which ... well, we’re getting to that.
The voter ID farce didn’t just help Trump. While the move back to the left in Wisconsin was so powerful that even large-scale voter disenfranchisement couldn’t prevent 2018′s election of a Democratic governor in Evers, it has helped the GOP to keep winning those lower-profile races for the 7-member state Supreme Court, where conservatives cling to a majority. Why does that matter so much?
For one thing, after Evers won in November 2018, the GOP-led legislature raced back to Madison for an extraordinary special session to roll back Wisconsin’s gubernatorial powers. The bills enacted while Walker was still lame-duck governor meant Evers couldn’t keep a campaign promise to withdraw the state from a lawsuit against Obamacare, or use executive powers to thwart any of the antiunion laws passed in 2011, or name his own people to control an economic-development board. The reason was simple, and this cannot be yelled loudly enough: Today’s Republicans don’t believe that liberal Democrats have a legitimate right to govern, regardless of whatever the people say in their silly democratic elections.
The lame-duck anti-Evers laws were such an affront to democracy and the results of the 2018 election that they were challenged all the way up to … you guessed it, the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Which decided by one vote, 4-3, to uphold the Republican’s election-undoing. Now are you starting to get it? What’s more, the state’s highest court is also slated to rule later this year on a case in which lower courts have ordered a purge of about 234,000 voters ahead of November’s general election, and the winner of Tuesday’s election is thought to be the deciding vote. Now do you see why these Republicans don’t mind killing a few folks as collateral damage to keep a court seat in their cold conservative hands?
This all culminates in the current farce, in which Evers — increasingly alarmed at the health threat in staging the election yet thwarted by those gerrymandered GOP lawmakers from doing anything about it — issued an executive order aimed at preventing in-person voting on Tuesday, only to have the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturn that in a 4-2 vote.
Meanwhile, on a separate track, a federal judge, who said he wanted to halt the primary but lacked the legal authority, did order the state to count absentee ballots — tens of thousands of Wisconsin residents who asked for these haven’t even received them yet — six days past the deadline. That matter was appealed on Monday all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. You know, the court that might have a 5-4 liberal majority had McConnell not plowed through the guardrails of constitutional democracy to deny Judge Merrick Garland a hearing in 2016 (and later also rammed through credibly-accused-but-unrepentant Brett Kavanaugh.)
Of course, the five Republican appointees on the court — including Neil Gorsuch, who got Garland’s purloined seat, and Kavanaugh — voted 5-4 to overturn the lower court and, in essence, deny voting rights to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin citizens. The travesty that’s taking place across Wisconsin at this very moment should make it clear to all Americans the depths of depravity to which Republicans are now stooping to undermine democracy. But it is also, in this unique and unfortunate U.S. moment, a call to arms.
In the next few weeks, Congress will be forced by the deepening economic crisis to act yet again to stimulate the economy, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats are saying that any such bill must include language to allow Americans across the country to vote by mail in the November election. This probably should have happened before, but it must happen now. There’s not only an existential threat to our democracy — with 2020′s election outcomes possibly hinging on who will risk coronavirus to cast a ballot — but an existential threat to the voters themselves.
On Monday, we got a valuable glimpse into what democracy still looks like in a withering dissent from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Without the absentee ballot extension, she wrote: "Either [voters] will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, though no fault of their own. That is a matter of utmost importance — to the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens, the integrity of the State’s election process, and in this most extraordinary time, the health of the Nation.”
Then there’s the health of Justice Ginsburg, who just turned 87 and has survived several bouts with cancer. Many wonder if she — and her courage and judicial wisdom — could survive on the court for four-plus years if Trump is reelected. That’s why the stakes for November — and who can vote or who can’t — are so damn high. After all, consolidation of control on the nation’s highest court is the ultimate prize for a Republican Party that increasingly views death less through the prism of public health and more as a piece of a political strategy.
Columnist’s note: Speaking of saving American democracy, it’s only about a week or so until the launch of The Will Bunch Newsletter, which is kind of like this column but with added extras for avid readers. Sign up now so we can continue the conversation.