The Wisconsin ghost election
Many observers are horrified, but should we really be surprised?
I realize that the weather is improving everywhere and that there are various signs already that deaths from the novel coronavirus could end up being less numerous than many feared, but an election?
Most of us can probably imagine dozens of things that we would prefer to see happen before it becomes time to vote again. Yet this is exactly what happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday, where voters donned masks and gloves and stood as far apart as they could manage while waiting in line to vote in a ghost election amid the pandemic and the attendant shelter-in-place order issued by Tony Evers, the state's Democratic governor.
This is not what Evers wanted to happen. Over the past few weeks he has attempted to postpone the election and, failing that, insisted that the deadline for sending in absentee ballots be extended. But such powers belong to the Republican-controlled state legislature, who refused to consider any of these proposals. When Evers tried to take unilateral action on Monday, he was thwarted by twin rulings, one from state judges, the other from the Supreme Court of the United States.
While it is still far too early to say what the outcome will be, it is already clear that the GOP got everything they wanted in Wisconsin on Tuesday. In a contest in which the most significant race pitted an incumbent conservative judge on the state Supreme Court against a liberal challenger, they expect to benefit from what will almost certainly be severely decreased voter turnout in urban areas such as Milwaukee, where instead of 180 polling places only five were open. (Daniel Kelly, the judge in question, was kind enough to recuse himself from the case that decided whether he would almost certainly continue in office.) The same court this fall is expected to rule on the question of whether as many as 200,000 voters should be purged from the electoral rolls in a state in which Donald Trump won by only 23,000 votes and the most recent governor's race was decided by a margin of only a few thousand. I think it's safe to say that we know how that is likely to go.
Many observers throughout the country are horrified by what has happened in Wisconsin. (Joe Biden, who recently told his supporters that it was safe to participate in what is essentially a lame-duck Democratic primary vote in the state, is not one of them.) I find myself wondering how shocked we should really be. What happened there strikes me as the logical continuation of the American two-party system, the nihilistic contest of opposition for its own sake into which everything — health, safety, a basic sense of decency and fair play, the so-called "issues" with which we are all supposed to be concerned — has been subsumed.
This, after all, is what our political parties do to win. They attempt to maximize their advantages, by decreasing or increasing the number of participants as they see fit. (If you think Terry McAuliffe restored the vote to 200,000 felons out of the goodness of his heart, I have a blood testing company I would like you to consider investing in.) When they win, they draw political maps intended to keep them in power. They seize upon any pretext or none to change the rules, even when it means breaking with principles they have recently avowed. The only thing even remotely surprising about the Wisconsin election is that we have seen nothing like it in other states so far (something I think we can attribute more to the fact that the Democratic primaries have all but been decided and the lack of down-ballot races as significant as the Wisconsin Supreme Court on most tickets than to genuine concern for public health).
What would it take to suspend the partisan nihilism? Whatever the answer might be, it certainly is not what experts consider the greatest public health emergency of our lifetimes. Would it be any different if the crisis were somehow even more serious? It is impossible to say, not least because our political leaders would be the last people to convey to us the significance of what was happening around us.
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