Although this year’s Democratic National Convention will be a largely virtual affair due to the pandemic, a downsized contingent of participants will still convene in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—a key swing state that helped clinch Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Milwaukee was originally chosen to host the DNC in part to signal that Democrats understand the importance of the state (Hillary Clinton famously never campaigned in Wisconsin, a fact political strategists and commentators held up to explain why she lost the state by fewer than 23,000 votes). But Democrats do not just need to build enthusiasm for Joe Biden in Wisconsin. They also need to make sure that Biden supporters can actually vote, and that their votes are counted. In 2020, this task is easier said than done.
Voting may be messy in every swing state this fall, but Wisconsin makes Democrats especially nervous. After all, its April election was a disaster: Officials failed to send out absentee ballots on time, and a severe shortage of poll workers forced residents to wait in line for hours during a pandemic to vote in person. Over the past decade, state Republicans have implemented a series of voter suppression laws that targeted mostly Black and low-income residents, who have also been hit hard by the pandemic. These hurdles are daunting and unfair. But they are not insurmountable. For one thing, state officials have learned a great deal from April’s pandemonium and are already far better prepared for November.
To understand how Wisconsin’s November election could work, you have to know how its April election went so horribly wrong. As the coronavirus spread across Wisconsin, hundreds of thousands of voters suddenly realized they would prefer to vote by mail rather than congregate at polls where they could become infected. These individuals flooded their municipal clerks’ offices with absentee ballot requests shortly before the election. Some clerks were too overwhelmed to send out ballots in time, forcing voters to go to the polls. But thousands of the state’s poll workers—who are disproportionately older and more vulnerable to COVID-19—quit for fear of infection. Cities responded by consolidating the polls; Milwaukee, for instance, reduced its polling places from 182 to five. As a result, voters had to wait for hours outside crowded, understaffed polls. Many Wisconsinites appear to have contracted the virus as a result of in-person voting.
Ann Jacobs, a Democratic member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, watched with horror as this catastrophe unfolded. (In June, she was elected chair of the commission, which administers and enforces state election law.) Jacobs and her colleagues immediately sought to avoid a repeat in the fall.
First, the bipartisan commission has decided to send an absentee ballot application to every voter by Sept. 1, so Wisconsinites can request their ballots long before the eve of the election. They need no excuse to vote absentee. Second, the commission streamlined the system for processing and tracking these ballots: Instead of sending requests to one of 1,850 municipal clerks, voters can now direct them to the commission. Third, the ballots will have bar codes so voters can track their progress through the mail online. As always, voters can also drop off absentee ballots at the local clerk’s office. And these clerks have the option of setting up a drop box where voters can deposit completed absentee ballots.
There is a catch. In June, a federal appeals court upheld most of Republicans’ restrictions on ballot access, including a stringent voter ID requirement. Anyone requesting an absentee ballot for the first time will have to provide a copy of an acceptable ID. (State or federal employee IDs don’t qualify, nor do out-of-state driver licenses.) And everyone who votes absentee must procure a “witness” to watch them fill out the ballot, then sign the envelope. The Republican-controlled Legislature has refused to relax this witness requirement in light of the pandemic. But the commission has confirmed that a witness can watch through a closed window or over video chat to reduce risk of exposure.
The federal appeals court upheld another contentious constraint on voting: It approved a Republican measure that slashed in-person early voting to just two weeks, down from six in some urban areas. The timing of this cut could not be worse, since longer early voting reduces the odds that any one poll will become an overcrowded COVID-19 hot spot. Milwaukee intends to set up 16 early voting sites around the city to forestall such congestion. Anybody who votes in person will have to bring their ID, and poll workers can ask that they remove their masks for identification purposes. Voters who obtain their ballot through the mail can drop them off at an early voting site. If the state faces another shortage of poll workers, Gov. Tony Evers may order members of the state’s National Guard to staff polling places.
There is another menace lurking in the background of Wisconsin’s coming election: A Republican law firm has urged the court to purge 129,000 people from the voter rolls. It claims, falsely, that state law requires the immediate purge of any voter flagged by an error-prone program designed to identify residents who may have moved. But the court will not hear arguments in the case until 34 days before Election Day. As one notoriously fringe-right justice has noted, this schedule effectively guarantees that the court won’t issue a decision before Nov. 3, keeping those 129,000 on the rolls at least through the election.
But there is still one issue that looms large: the counting of absentee ballots. Like every other swing state except North Carolina, Wisconsin bars election officials from even opening these ballots until Election Day. If the state counts Election Day votes first, then turns to absentee ballots, it will create a blue shift: The returns on election night may give Trump a lead that slowly disappears. A Marquette University Law School poll released on Tuesday showed that Wisconsin Democrats are 3.5 times more likely than Republicans to vote by mail. The poll gave Trump an Election Day lead of 67–26, yet showed Biden winning the state by five points. Trump’s assault on mail-in voting seems to be polarizing voters, guaranteeing a major blue shift if absentee ballots are counted after Election Day votes. The president could seize upon this shift to reject the legitimacy of the results if he loses.
But Wisconsin’s cities have a plan to ensure that absentee votes don’t trickle in for hours, days, and weeks after Election Day this time. Some cities, including Milwaukee, will transfer absentee ballots received before Nov. 3 to a “central count location” where they will be counted continuously throughout Election Day, starting at 7 a.m. (Milwaukee has already procured a warehouse for this purpose.) On Election Day itself, clerks will also send out “absentee response teams” to drive between polling places and help count absentee ballots that weren’t sent to a central count location. Madison successfully tested this strategy during Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday. Finally, when cities begin to release results, they will be obligated to note how many absentee ballots have not yet been counted. If everything goes right, then, Wisconsin should avoid the kind of massive blue shift that gives Trump room for chicanery.
Everything, of course, will not go right. There are hitches and hiccups in every election; more than 23,000 absentee ballots were thrown out in April, and roughly 17,000 voters were disenfranchised by Wisconsin’s voter ID law in 2017. But Wisconsin is now well positioned to handle a surge in absentee ballots. Plus, the state allows voters to register at the polls on Election Day, so anyone who can’t navigate the absentee process has a fallback option.
It is still too hard to vote in Wisconsin. No one should have to jump through so many hoops to exercise a constitutional right. And Democrats should hammer on that fact as they convene in Wisconsin. As Jacobs told me, “There have been a lot of improvements—and I still worry.”
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Correction, Aug. 14, 2020: Due to a photo provider error, the caption on this photo misstated where voters were waiting to cast their ballots. It was outside Washington High School, not Riverside University High School.