The Fight Over Wisconsin’s Election

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S1: It’s Tuesday, April 7th, 2020. And if you live in Wisconsin, at least at the time we recorded this, today, it’s Election Day. Despite the global pandemic that’s keeping most of us at home.

S2: Right. It’s been like trying to do the impossible. It’s been like living a nightmare. I keep asking myself, am I still alive or could it possibly all be true? Could it?

S1: Mary Beth WHITSELL Bayle, she’s one of the people trying to carry out this election. She’s the city clerk in Madison. I know that you told someone that you’re working like 100 hours a week right now. Yeah. How do you even work 100 hours a week? You become very, very grumpy.


S3: Mary Beth has been pulling these hours because of what started happening as the election got closer and people in our town realized they were going to have to find a way to vote.

S4: It’s because we were receiving so many absentee requests that it was beyond any of our capacity to process right away. By law, we’re supposed to have the absentee in the mail within 48 hours of receiving the request.

S5: So it’s like a it’s like a race, like you get a request and you’ve got two days to get that sucker in the mail.

S6: Yes, we do. But a couple Fridays ago, our backlog was sixteen thousand emails to process for absentee requests.


S3: So Mary Beth had her husband help out at the office. She got her teenage daughter involved. She even trained some out-of-work librarians to process mail in voter requests. She still couldn’t meet the demand.


S1: By the time I spoke to Mary Beth on Sunday, her focus had shifted to getting poll locations ready, at least the ones she can keep open. She had to shut down about a third of them, like the ones in nursing homes because of covered 19. She was arranging all these work arounds like curbside voting, an elaborate system involving poll workers and face shields, sliding ballots through cracked open car windows.

S2: Then for voters who are entering the polling place, we’re asking them to stay six feet apart. We’re keeping our poll workers six feet apart.


S1: But how many poll workers are going to show up? That is the question.

S7: Wisconsin’s primary election didn’t have to be like this. The governor tried to delay it. He proposed mailing ballots to every registered voter so they could vote from home. The legislature rejected these ideas and that’s how Mary Beth got to this point, working till 2:00 in the morning. Processing absentee ballot requests and trying to find plastic face shields for her poll workers.

S3: Now, she’s just hoping those workers actually show up this morning.

S7: Today on the show, we’re going to tell the story of how Election Day in Wisconsin got to be such a mess. It’s a story about what happens when a pandemic collides with partisan politics. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.


S1: After talking to Mary Beth, I wanted to understand why she was still preparing for an election at all. So I called up Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern. He’s been following the push and pull over Wisconsin’s primary. When we spoke on Monday afternoon, things seemed settled, sort of.


S8: The election was going forward, but there was a dispute about how many people would be able to file absentee ballots and what would happen if some of those ballots arrived after Election Day. So let’s explain how we got here in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, but it is definitely a swing state with a lot of partisan battles. So how did we get to the point where Wisconsin was even like having this election in the first place? Because just last month we were talking about Ohio, where at the last minute they were calling the whole thing off.


S9: So I don’t want to sound conspiratorial here, but I really feel like any realistic conversation about Wisconsin and how it ended up where it is today has to begin with the Koch brothers and with the nation. I know. I know. Please don’t hate me. But what you have to understand is that in the arts, the Cokes and their allies and their strategists got together and basically decided to pick a states that would serve as the laboratory for all of their ideas. And that state was Wisconsin. And they needed a governor who would essentially be a puppet for all of their policies and just do whatever the hell they said in that puppet with Scott Walker. And they needed a legislature that had a sufficiently large Republican majority that nothing that Walker and the Cokes ever proposed would get tanked. And they did that by ruthlessly gerrymandering the state after the 2010 census and creating this impenetrable GOP wall that the Democrats have not been able to cross over. So even when Tony IVAs won the governorship in 2018 and he’s a Democrat, old and he’s a Democrat, Republicans held fast to the state legislature.


S8: Right. And there’s their numbers here where it’s like X percentage of the population voted for Democrats. But the legislature, when you look at it, looks a little different than that.

S9: Yeah. So in twenty ten, Republicans gerrymander the hell out of the state legislature. Right. And they basically pack the the blue cities like Madison and Milwaukee. They packed voters into a few districts there and then they they spread the rest around the state. So they’ve got this huge gerrymander. And in 2012, it pays off because in 2012, Republicans only win forty eight point six percent of the statewide vote in Wisconsin. So they don’t even win a majority. But then that vote translates into 60 out of ninety nine seats and the Wisconsin State Assembly. So you’ve got Republicans winning less than a majority of the vote and capturing a near super majority of the state assembly.


S10: So let’s fast forward to now. You’ve got this Democratic Governor Tony Evers. He wants to protect his citizens, but at the same time knows that he has to deal with this Republican legislature. Right.

S11: Right. And this is where the Coke stuff kind of comes back in. You know, again, not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but after Scott Walker lost his re-election race in 2018 to Tony IVAs, the legislature, which remained Republican, decided that it didn’t really think that a Democratic governor had a legitimate right to rule and began stripping powers from Governor Iver’s before he took office.

S10: I think the way that you put this on the show earlier was that Wisconsin is governed by the dead hand of Scott Walker.

S12: Yes.

S11: Yes, that is exactly correct, because Republicans basically gave themselves all of the important powers of the governorship, or at least many of the important powers imposing Scott Walker’s policies, even though Scott Walker himself has no more power and just tweets sad pictures of his ham sandwiches.

S13: So in March, Tony IVAs knows that he has an election coming up on April 7th. He also knows that the Corona virus is becoming a major problem and states all around the country are basically shutting down. So what does he do?

S11: So Iver’s does not have power to postpone the election. That is not a power he has retained. And so the Republican legislature is the one holding the cards here. And IVAs decides to try to play nice with the Republican legislature. He is a team player. He’s a pretty, pretty sweet guy. And so he sort of goes hat in hand to the legislature and he says, look, why don’t we make this an all male election or at least a mostly male election where we. Some quick legislation, an implement, some quick rules that make sure everyone can easily vote absentee. People don’t have to go to the polls and they won’t risk getting the Corona virus in order to cast their ballot.


S10: So he asks the legislature to allow the election to really be all mail in like he wanted.

S8: He wanted ballots sent out to every voter with, you know, addressed on the lobes, with stamps on them so everyone could participate but participate remotely. How did the legislature respond?

S11: The legislature said in in two words.

S12: Hell no. We don’t like vote by mail elections. Yeah. What was their justification here?

S14: So in the past, some Wisconsin officials have been pretty overt about the fact that expanded access to the ballot is bad for Republicans. Right. You have these occasional stray quips by Republican legislators and operatives in Wisconsin where they say basically we need to suppress votes to make sure we can win. But what you have them saying in court filings is essentially this is no big deal. You know, this is a pandemic. But we already had absentee voting. We already had mail in voting, mail in balloting. And we don’t need to change anything. Like we can just keep all of the rules the exact same and people can just switch to mail and voting if they want and everything will be totally fine.


S10: And, you know, you could switch to mail and voting pretty late in the process. Right. Like if I’m a Wisconsin voter, I could ask for a mail in ballot like last week, I think.

S14: Yeah, that’s right. And if the state had the infrastructure and personnel to prepare for for that possibility, then in theory, all of this could have been worked out a few weeks ago. And I think the state could have run a decently smooth all male or mostly male election.

S8: What happened instead?

S14: Oh, dear, it’s still happening. What happened instead was that basically the legislature decided to go to war against both Iver’s and a bunch of Democratic officials who were saying, we need guidance here and we need some sort of relaxed rules to make sure this all works. And Republicans said everything will be fine. We don’t need to change anything.

S11: What they weren’t thinking about was the fact that a huge number of voters, a massive number of voters who had never voted through mail before are now going to be voting by mail. And that is going to create a massive Titanic backlog of vote by mail applications. And there are literally not nearly enough humans in Wisconsin, governments, not nearly enough election officials to process all of those ballots and make the election run the way it’s supposed to.

S10: Yeah. Because I guess it’s all fine and good for the Wisconsin legislature to say, listen, you can just file for a mail in ballot. But if you’re the city clerk in Milwaukee or Madison, you’re the person who’s going to all of the sudden get thousands and thousands of applications at the last minute to vote by mail.


S11: Yeah. And I mean, that’s a lowball number because as of late last week, there were already a million more mail in ballots sent out than in 2019 spring election. So we’re not just talking about double or triple like we’re talking about an exponentially higher number of mail in ballot requests that the state just simply lacks the personnel to process in time for the April 7th election.

S13: Wisconsin also has this really intense voter I.D. requirement, right?

S15: Yeah. If you’re registering to vote by mail in, a lot of people are going to be doing that are already did that. You have to upload a photo I.D. and a proof of residency and send it over the Internet. And once again, you know, imagine a senior citizen of a few means who relied on the library to help her use the Internet. And now all the libraries are closed. And she’s got a few days to figure out how to upload this documentation. And she’s by herself. I mean, that’s a pretty difficult thing for a lot of people to meets on short notice.

S1: You know, it’s interesting.

S10: When I spoke to that city clerk in Madison, Mary Beth WHITSELL bail, she talked about this voter I.D. requirement and what it was doing to her at the office. And she said, first of all, it meant she was getting just tons of angry, angry calls from people who were asking, why do you need this? You know, what’s going on? And then with some people who couldn’t figure out what to do, instead of sending a picture of a photo I.D., or maybe they didn’t. Have a photo I.D., they would send selfies. So she was getting these selfie is from people all over Madison saying, please let me vote.


S15: That’s so sad. I mean, I mean, that’s really like the tragic human face of all of these Republican voter suppression measures. Right. You know, it’s all well and good to say. Oh, well, people can just pick up a free I.D. from the DMV after they get their birth certificate and all this other stuff.

S16: But in practice, it often boils down to confused people sending selfies to an overworked clerk saying, please let me exercise my constitutional right to vote.

S13: Can we talk about why this election in Wisconsin matters? Because part of the reason that the governor didn’t want to postpone the election was that there were so many things up for election. It wasn’t just the presidential primary. We’re talking about city council seats and mayoral seats.

S8: All these seats that could’ve sat empty. And then there’s a Supreme Court seat, too. So what are these elections about?

S15: Yeah. So they have more than thirty eight hundred seats on the ballot across the state. And that includes nearly 16:00 county supervisors and officers. Five hundred and sixty five school district board positions. Then you’ve got a lot of lower court judge ships that are open. And one of the issues that IVAs noted was, you know, we don’t know who can exercise authority in these roles if we don’t have an election. These people, they’re filling terms that have a limited number of years. Their terms are going to expire. And we don’t know who can actually exercise that that power anymore. So that was a big reason why Iver’s didn’t want to cancel the election. And I think a legitimate reason and a rational reason. But by far, the most important race that will happen in Wisconsin on Tuesday is that state Supreme Court race. Why do you say that? Because the Wisconsin state Supreme Court is probably the crown jewel of the Coke’s effort to remake Wisconsin. I mean, the Coke’s and their their network of donors have poured so many millions and millions of dollars into these state Supreme Court races to install very far right. Reactionary judges on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And they have succeeded. There is currently a 5 to 2 conservative majority on the court. And if this election swings left and the liberal candidate wins this state Supreme Court election, that will go down to a 4 3 conservative majority, a pretty narrow split. And that leaves room for a Democrat, a liberal to win the next race and turn the court blue, flip it, create a liberal majority, and then that liberal majority can start chipping away at a lot of the extreme stuff that Scott Walker and the Republican legislature have implemented over the last decade or so. So what is this going to look like today?


S1: I just can’t imagine.

S15: Going to vote right now and many Wisconsinites cannot either. So a couple of things I’ll be looking at is basically how many poll workers simply don’t show up to the very few in-person polling places that remain open? I think it’s going to be fascinating to see if places like Milwaukee and Green Bay and Madison can even keep a handful of polling places running, because I think a lot of people who are supposed to show up to help are going to be scared. You know, they’re disproportionately elderly people who work the polls in America. They don’t get paid very much. They tend to be people with lots of leisure time on their hands. So old people. And they’re not going to want to go and face thousands of voters who kind of crush into these these voting places and try not to infect other people. They’re going to say, I’d rather stay home. So look for catastrophes on the ground and also look at the election officials who are just swimming in piles of absentee ballots, marches astern.

S8: Thank you so much for joining me.

S11: Sorry, I don’t have better news for you.

S17: A few hours after I got off the line with Mark Joseph Stern, Wisconsin Governor Ivar’s announced he was suddenly postponing the state’s election due to the coronavirus Republicans. The legislature immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court and the court ruled the election had to go on. So I called Mark back.

S18: Her.

S13: Can you just lay out exactly what happened here?

S19: Oh, my God. So, all right. We got off the phone. I know, I know this was hours ago, but it feels like it was years ago. I was a younger man. OK. We got off the phone and Governor IVAs issued an executive order that officially postpone the election. He said, I am drawing on my legal powers to protect the health and safety of Wisconsinites. And I am going to delay the election, cancel in-person voting tomorrow, and call a special session of the legislature again and ask them to reschedule the election for June.


S8: And this is a power that Governor Ivar’s had had admitted he did not have. Right.

S19: Yeah, he he sort of said, like, basically, I’m not sure if I have this power. I mean, I think that he was sort of playing a little realpolitik here. I think he recognized the state has a very conservative and hostile Supreme Court. And so he had been saying like, I want this to be really clear. I want the legislature to change the law. So I don’t have to rest on my own shaky powers. And he called the legislature into session to a special emergency session to to change the date. And then the legislature immediately convened and said, screw you, Tony Iver’s. We’re doing no such thing. So he just sort of decided I might as well take a wild swing and see if I can make it work.

S8: Nothing to lose, right. Or everything to lose, depending on your perspective.

S19: Right. Really, everything. Because what ended up happening lies. Just a few hours after Ivar’s issued this order, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a 4 to 2 decision blocking the order, reinstating Tuesdays election and without explaining its reasoning, basically saying the show must go on. So as of this exact moment, there is an election, there is in-person voting in Wisconsin. Not many people maybe showing up, but there is a Wisconsin election on April 7th.

S13: So the people who decided that the election was going to go on, they have a way. They want the election to turn out quite.

S20: Absolutely. Absolutely. They have. They openly have a vested interest in this election continuing. So that’s the pandemic suppresses Democratic votes and they get to keep their treasured colleague, Dan Kelly, on the bench.


S19: And they have said almost as much in public statements.

S13: OK, this conversation. It will drop into people’s feeds on Tuesday morning. If I’m waking up in Wisconsin, what am I doing?

S19: If you’re waking up in Wisconsin, I sincerely hope that you cast an absentee ballot more than a week ago.

S20: If you have not yet voted in Wisconsin, I have no idea what to tell you, because some campaigns are saying put on your your latex gloves and your face mask and go vote and douse yourself in hand sanitizer. And other campaigns, including some mayors who are up for re-election, are saying don’t vote like don’t risk your life in order to cast a ballot. It is depressing that we have reached this stage. But you should not risk your health and safety in order to exercise the franchise. So it’s like a really difficult moral dilemma for Wisconsinites. And I don’t know what I would do, but it’s just, you know, another reason, kind of vivid illustration of why this election should absolutely not be happening right now.

S21: Mark, Joseph Stern covers the courts and the law for Slate. Minutes after we got off the phone a second time, there was one more update this time about how many absentee ballots will actually be counted in Wisconsin today, because legally every ballot has to arrive by Election Day, pandemic or no. A federal judge had tried to extend that deadline, give voters an extra week to send their ballots in. But on Monday evening, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that decision. To give you an idea of what that means.

S4: The city clerk, who I talked to at the top of the show, Mary Beth, she told me this right now we’re looking at thirty eight thousand five hundred sixty nine absentees at risk of having no possibility of being returned by Election Day.


S3: So those thirty eight thousand ballots just wouldn’t count.

S17: Right. And that is just in Madison during the last presidential primary in 2016. Mary Beth says she got four late ballots.

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