‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: Professors analyze election decisions during pandemic

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin’s election will go on Tuesday as planned, but not before several back-and-forth developments.

“We have to be prepared for an election tomorrow,” said Maribeth Witzel-Behl, clerk for the city of Madison, after the order from Gov. Tony Evers to halt in-person voting. “We’re trying to make sure poll workers know not to turn off their alarm clocks just yet.”

That was a good call, because just hours later the Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked that order.

“Everything in saga is more complicated than we think,” said Howard Schweber, a UW-Madison political science professor who teaches constitutional law. “I’ve never seen anything like this unfolding in any state election or election of our lifetime.”

Schweber said under the state’s emergency order, Evers is authorized to issue orders to preserve health and property, so the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision likely came from the conclusion that closing polls is not necessary to preserve health and property or that Evers’ emergency powers don’t extend to the timing of an election.

With the implications the decision will have, especially in Milwaukee, which heavily leans democratic and will have five polling locations rather than the original 180, Schweber said, “It’s very difficult for me to not see this as a victory for a deliberate Republican strategy using fear of the pandemic as a way to suppress voting in the most heavily democratic areas.”

Journalism Professor Michael Wagner said part of the push to keep the election on Tuesday was to not set a precedent of changing election dates in the future, but on the other hand, there are issues of public safety and voter turnout to consider.

“To have a situation where on one hand, we’re saying it’s not safe to be six feet from anyone else and the other hand, saying show up and do your job as a democratic citizen, is a uniquely perilous choice facing voters of Wisconsin,” Wagner said, adding that all of the changing information can cause confusion and distrust among voters.

Wagner said that his center’s research suggests early and absentee voting could further exacerbate inequalities in voter turnout between minority and white voters.

“I’m worried about huge inequalities in terms of who ends up turning up to vote if we have the vote on Election Day,” he said. “I’m also worried about what our research has shown when it comes to black and Hispanic voting with early and absentee voting.”

Not long after the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its own ruling regarding Wisconsin’s election, blocking the state’s plan to extend absentee ballot voting amidst concerns of voters receiving them in a timely manner. It’s a development Schweber called “shocking.”

“My only interpretation is that people who hold positions at very high levels, at the judicial and state and federal level, are still not taking the coronavirus seriously,” Schweber said, “because if they are taking coronavirus seriously and conceive of it as an actual threat to public health, they’re embracing a message saying your vote or your life, or your vote or health, which is a level of coldblooded cynicism I don’t think we’ve seen in American politics, even in the hyper-partisan environment of the last several years.”