Wisconsin Republicans' deadly power grab
Monday night, there was a brief but furious political struggle over the Wisconsin election planned for Tuesday. Democratic Governor Tony Evers ordered that the election be delayed until June 9, so as to allow time for the novel coronavirus pandemic to pass, and so the state could set up universal vote-by-mail systems. Several other states have already taken similar steps.
Right-wing Republican justices, who control the state Supreme Court by a 4-2 margin, including one of whom faces a liberal challenger in this very election (though he did recuse himself on this vote), immediately overturned his order. The U.S. Supreme Court also issued another 5-4 ruling on partisan lines forbidding the state from extending the deadline for mailing an absentee ballot. Many more Wisconsin voters had requested absentee ballots compared to previous elections (for obvious reasons), which led to major delays in sending them out. Now, anyone who wanted their vote counted and hadn't yet gotten a ballot was abruptly forced to go vote in person.
Evers backed down, and the election did indeed proceed Tuesday. But the results cannot possibly be considered legitimate. This is a fraudulent election, a power grab forced through by a minority party whose own control of the Wisconsin legislature is the result of cheating.
To begin with, no doubt tens or even hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are rightly too frightened to vote. At time of writing turnout figures were not available, but it simply beggars belief to think that turnout would not have been higher if it weren't for the deadly pandemic that is sweeping the land. Gatherings of thousands of people all touching the same voting machines, even if social distancing and hygiene are maintained, is directly forbidden by public health guidelines. People will unquestionably get sick and die because of this. With coronavirus spreading fast in Wisconsin, the state will be lucky if only a few thousand people catch COVID-19 as a result. If they aren't, this election could easily be the mother of all super-spreader events.
Also because of coronavirus, the number of polling places was slashed due to lack of staff to open them — in Milwaukee, where there's a high concentration of Democratic voters, the number was cut from 180 to 5. While many Wisconsin residents did indeed stand in line for hours to vote, the enormous wait times alone surely turned many people away. Not everyone has hours to take off work.
The U.S. Supreme Court majority lamely attempted to claim their limitation on absentee voting was a narrow technical question about protecting "the integrity of the election process." In truth, it was naked voter suppression. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted in a dissent, under the previous ruling that ordered the state to allow more time for absentee ballots, Wisconsin residents would have been able to safely vote from home. "With the majority's stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others' safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own," she wrote. Meanwhile, a second little-noticed conservative appellate ruling requires absentee ballots to have a witness signature, meaning that any already sent in without it will be tossed out.
The state Supreme Court ruling, meanwhile, comes from a lawsuit from Wisconsin Republicans claiming that the governor does not have the power to unilaterally change election laws. But Republicans only control the state legislature thanks to extreme gerrymandering which makes it basically impossible for Democrats to win a majority of districts. In the 2018 election for the state Assembly, Democrats got 53 percent of the total vote — yet only 36 percent of the seats. (After Evers narrowly won in 2018, the Republican legislature promptly stripped him of most of his powers in the lame duck session.)
At bottom, Republicans in both the Wisconsin legislature and the court system perceived a partisan advantage in forcing the election through, even if thousands of their own voters were killed as a result, and so they did it. They know for a fact how dangerous this pandemic is — both courts have sent as many of their employees home as possible, and sharply limited public access to legal buildings. The U.S. Supreme Court is conducting its operations entirely online.
A democratic system has legitimacy if its procedures are fair — if there are basic protections for civil rights, transparent procedures, and open competition for seats in which any party can win. The state of Wisconsin is increasingly not a democracy. And that may be where the rest of the country is headed: a corrupt, authoritarian regime with a thin veneer of fake democratic procedures. Indeed, this process of endless procedural escalation and ever-more blatant cheating from conservatives has been seen before. It bears some resemblance to the early stages of Reconstruction in the 1860s, when furious ex-Confederates attempted to overthrow multi-racial democracy in the South. As Jamelle Bouie notes at The New York Times, when they eventually succeeded, the Jim Crow South was for 90 years an authoritarian system of government, enforced by terrorism, where elections were an open fraud. Thankfully we have not yet seen that kind of open violence, but then again it may not be necessary if Republicans can count on the open connivance of the federal legal system.
To preserve small-r republican government, it may become necessary for Democrats to fight fire with fire — for instance, ignoring court orders to conduct fraudulent elections that kill hundreds or thousands of people. Ideally they could just mobilize against this abuse of power and win legitimately in November, but that may not be possible unless Democratic governors like Evers are willing to disregard corrupt legal opinions and hold safe, fair elections, using force if necessary.
Unfortunately, there is little sign of that happening yet. The party went ahead with in-person voting in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida in mid-March. Likely presidential nominee Joe Biden insisted that the Wisconsin primary should go ahead, and said he does not support universal national vote-by-mail.
It will not be a simple matter for Republicans to finish coring out the remaining democratic character of the United States. But it will be a lot easier if Democrats lie down and let themselves be steamrolled.
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