The Wisconsin Primary: WTF, SCOTUS?
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
I've read a lot of dystopian novels. 1984. Brave New World. The Handmaid's Tale. Stuff like that. But I never thought I'd be living in a dystopian world. This pandemic has been the closest I've come. Not quite the same, but still pretty damn weird, and pretty damn frightening.
The stay at home orders, while not fun, are reasonable, and have been working to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The governor of Wisconsin issued his own stay at home order on March 24th for the people of Wisconsin, and ordered them to stay at home until April 24th.
But the Wisconsin primary election was scheduled for April 7th, during a time when Wisconsin voters were ordered to stay at home. So public officials told Wisconsin voters that it would be best if they voted by mail. Many Wisconsin voters agreed, and requested an absentee ballot to be mailed to them. The people in charge of sending out absentee ballots in Wisconsin were overwhelmed by the number of requests. They sent out a lot of ballots, but they were not going to be able to send out all of them in time for people to send them back and have them count. Tens of thousands of absentee ballots were very likely not going to make it to Wisconsin voters by April 7th. But Wisconsin election law required that in order for their vote to count, absentee ballots needed to be received by April 7th, election day. Because so many people wanted to vote by mail, and were concerned that their votes would not count, they sued. And won.
The District Court agreed that because of the stay at home order, the people of Wisconsin should have been allowed to vote by mail. They also agreed that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Elections Commission had been overwhelmed by the demand for absentee ballots. So the court said that for this election, voters would have extra time to mail in their ballots and have them count. In a normal election, ballots had to be received by Election Day in Wisconsin in order for them to count. But for this election, the court said that voters would have until April 13th, so that gave them an extra week. And because there were so many more people that wanted to vote by mail for this election, the court also gave Wisconsin voters one extra day to ask for an absentee ballot.
Sounds pretty reasonable, right? At a time when the United States has had more people die from COVID-19 than any other country on the planet, I don't think it sounds too crazy to give the voters in Wisconsin an extra week to return their absentee ballots.
But the Republican National Committee disagreed. Apparently, Republicans think that when there is low voter turnout, Republican candidates have a better chance of winning, so they really do their best to stop people from voting whenever they can. Remember voter ID laws to prevent the "widespread" voter fraud that the Republicans were so concerned about? (Voter fraud is actually very, very rare.) The Republicans were behind those, too. Voter ID laws require voters to have some specific form of state issued identification, like a passport, or a drivers' license, or state ID. These forms of ID are harder to get when you are poor, don't drive, and have to take three buses to the nearest DMV. So if you can't get these types of ID, and you aren't allowed to prove you are who you say you are by using other types of identification, then you can't vote. This affects poor, minority Democrats more than anyone else. And the Republicans definitely don't want those people to vote. (Jim Crow laws, anyone?)
This lawsuit to force Wisconsin voters to go to the polls and vote during the worst pandemic any of us have ever experienced in our lives is just the Republicans' latest and most cruel effort to stop people from voting.
The Republican National Committee swooped in and appealed the decision that gave Wisconsin voters and extra week to cast their vote. And they appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. What's worse is that a slim majority of the the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that if Wisconsin voters had not received their absentee ballot in the mail before April 7th, they would have to go to the polls in order to vote. The Court held that in order for their absentee ballot to be counted, it would need to be post marked by April 7th, or hand delivered to a polling location on Election Day. Otherwise, people who wanted to vote would have no choice but go outside and find a polling location to vote on Election Day. If they did not do those things, they could not vote at all.
This part was not widely reported. I did not hear about it on the news. I only saw some footage of Wisconsin voters lined up at a polling location carrying signs that said, "This is ridiculous." I did not even know that the U.S. Supreme Court got involved until Stephen Colbert mentioned it on his show. Chances are, you didn't either. So now you know.
Of course, the Republican National Committee didn't tell the U.S. Supreme Court that they wanted to keep as many people from voting as possible, and that this lawsuit was just part of a much larger plan to achieve that result. They told the U.S. Supreme Court that they just wanted to follow existing election laws in Wisconsin, and that the lower court decision violated those laws.
The sad part is that a bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the RNC's crazy logic. The Supreme Court acted like this was an ordinary election, and it was unreasonable to allow voters a little extra time to mail in their absentee ballots. The majority opinion had the audacity to say that, "The plaintiffs put forth no probative evidence in the District Court that these voters here would be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to the timing of their receipt of absentee ballots." Which is a fancy way of five dudes on the Supreme Court saying, "Gee! We had no idea that a global pandemic was going on! We didn't know that stay at home orders would mean that a lot more people would want to vote by mail. And we don't see how a ton more people asking to vote by mail could cause a problem with getting their ballots in time to mail them in before Election Day. We live in a cave with a pack of wolves."
The dissenters, all women, replied by saying, "The Court's suggestion that the current situation is not "substantially different" from an "ordinary election" boggles the mind," This is a very polite way of saying, "Are you nuts? Of course this is a different election! COVID-19 has forced most of the country to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus! If people are forced to stay at home, of course they are going to want to vote by mail! You really do live in a cave with a pack of wolves, don't you?!"
Then, as if to pretend that their ruling didn't totally ignore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is going on, the majority claimed that all they were doing was ruling on a "narrow issue" and they were not trying to express an opinion about any other election procedures that might be changed to slow the spread of the virus. But I am not fooled. And neither are a lot of other Democrats. Nancy Pelosi and 51 other Democratic Party chairpersons signed an open letter strongly urging Congress to give the states $2 billion to shore up their existing absentee ballot process so that they can be prepared to mail one out to every voter who asks for one.
Trump rejected this idea, saying that if it happened, no Republican could ever win another run for office. I think Trump is exaggerating, but his feelings are shared by other Republicans.
So what can you do? If you are not yet signed up to vote by mail, sign up right now. God only knows how long this pandemic will last, and it's better to be prepared. And if you want your fellow voters to have the option to vote by mail, please contact your representatives in the House and in the Senate and let them know that you support Congress giving money to the states to help them send out and process the ballots. If you're not sure who your representatives in the House and Senate are, below are a couple of links that will help you find them. You can also call Congress' switchboard at (202) 224-3121. They can connect you to speak with someone in your House Representative's and your U.S. Senator's offices. And whatever you do, please be safe, and wash your hands.