Jurisprudence

Wisconsin’s Election Was Not a Triumph for Democracy. It Was a Tragedy.

No healthy democracy would force its citizens to jeopardize their lives to vote.

Residents wait in line to vote at Riverside University High School on April 07, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Residents waited more than two hours to vote at the school, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to COVID-19.
Residents wait in line to vote at Riverside University High School on April 7 in Milwaukee.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The story of Wisconsin’s April 7 election is, in some ways, an inspirational one. Republicans insisted on holding the contest in the midst of a pandemic, then successfully fought Democratic efforts to expand absentee balloting. The GOP’s voter suppression forced thousands of Wisconsinites to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. A huge number of people accepted the risk, braving long lines and large crowds to cast a ballot. And they prevailed: The liberal candidate triumphed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race by a nine-point margin, ousting an arch-conservative justice and putting progressives in striking distance of flipping the court.

This narrative is factually accurate, but it is not a triumph. It is a tragedy. In 2020, some Americans jeopardized their lives to vote. No healthy democracy would push its citizens into this predicament. Wisconsin voters did not have to worry about getting brutalized at the polls, like black voters during Jim Crow; they did, however, face an invisible threat that could very well end their lives. We should be inspired by Wisconsinites’ refusal to let Republicans silence their voices. But we should also be horrified that some Americans may have literally sacrificed their lives to exercise this constitutional right. As Ann Jacobs, a Democratic member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told me last week, “John Lewis is a hero because he risked his life to vote. That is not the standard to which the ordinary citizen should be held to exercise the franchise.”

It is too soon to tell how many Americans were disenfranchised by Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated Legislature and the courts that enabled it. But it is already apparent that the number will be high. Republicans suppressed votes in two related ways. First, they declined to postpone the election after 7,000 poll workers dropped out for fear of infection. As a result, several urban centers shuttered the vast majority of their polling places; Milwaukee, for instance, reduced its polling places from 182 to five. Second, Republicans rejected efforts to loosen restrictions on absentee ballots. In the weeks before the election, an unprecedented number of people—nearly 1.3 million—requested these ballots, but election officials couldn’t process every request in time. Thus, many voters didn’t even receive their ballots until after Election Day. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, ballots mailed after Election Day were thrown out.

If you requested a mail-in ballot but didn’t get it by Election Day, then, you had to either go to the handful of open polling places or surrender your vote. If you chose to cast a ballot in-person, you had to wait for hours in the cold, in a line that snaked around many city blocks. You could wear a mask and try to stay six feet away from other voters. But eventually, you had to come into contact with poll workers, who themselves came into contact with thousands of other people. (Poll workers in Florida and Chicago have already tested positive for the coronavirus.) Then you went home to your family, your community—and if you caught COVID-19, you brought it home with you.

We don’t yet know how many Wisconsinites were infected while voting. But the number is almost certainly higher than zero, and it didn’t have to be. If GOP legislators had compromised with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, they could’ve easily delayed the election, mailed out ballots to every voter, and ensured that no one put their lives on the line. Instead, Republicans appear to have calculated that their schemes would suppress more Democratic votes than Republican ones. They may have been wrong: Jill Karofsky, the liberal candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court, trounced Daniel Kelly, the conservative incumbent, by about 163,000 votes.

But that does not mean democracy won. Turnout was down significantly from the last spring election during a presidential primary: 34.3 percent as compared with 47.4 percent in 2016. Some of that decline is attributable to Milwaukee County, which saw mass poll closures, and where turnout fell by 40,000 votes as compared with 2016. Yes, many Milwaukee voters still braved the polls. But many did not. And can anyone blame them? Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was on the ballot himself, urged residents not to go to the polls. You’d have to be delusional, malicious, or both to encourage people to vote in-person during a pandemic—as Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos did, while covered in protective gear. (Every Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, including the four who reinstated the April 7 election, voted by mail.)

It’s heartening to see photos of Wisconsinites lined up at the polls on April 7, their mere presence a protest against voter suppression. But it won’t be so heartening when COVID-19 infections begin to break out among these individuals.

On Tuesday, I asked Jacobs, the elections commissioner, how she felt about the claim that the election turned out to be a win for democracy. “The results of this election demonstrate how precious democracy is,” Jacobs said, “and how hard people will work to preserve it. I truly believe we asked too much of our voters. And yet they prevailed.” But at what cost? “You can win battles and still have too many casualties,” Jacobs told me. “We may have won this battle, but it’s my dearest hope that it is not at the expense of casualties.”