Discombobulated Edition: On COVID-19, the Wisconsin Spring Election, Tony Evers, Absentee Voting and More

A different kind of Recombobulation Area for these challenging times: eight columns in one.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

The Wonder Bar on West Vliet Street with a message for all of us. Photo by the author.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended everything about life as we know it. And even here in The Recombobulation Area, it’s all pretty discombobulating.

So, instead of the type of column you usually read here in this space, I’m going to lean into that discombobulation and write about a whole bunch of the things that have flooded the news this week as we navigate our new homebound existence, flattening that curve, one day at a time.

First things first: Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives.

OK, on to the column

1. Coronavirus in the Midwest

Every day, I’ve been tracking the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the seven Midwestern states -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- using the daily data released by each state’s health department. 

And from March 25 to April 1, the combined total number of cases in the Midwest grew from 6,358 to 24,212, and the number of deaths increased 95 to 658. 

This is, of course, terrifying. 

And as discussed in last week’s column, the city where concern is greatest is Detroit. The city alone has seen 2,472 cases and 83 deaths from coronavirus (as of April 1), up from 705 cases and 12 deaths on March 25. And in Michigan, the state just saw its largest one-day increase, with more than 1,700 new confirmed cases and 78 people died from the virus between Tuesday and Wednesday. The situation there was bad last week, and it’s getting worse. It’s hard to fathom what the next week could hold for our neighbors to the east. 

Also of note: Indiana’s number of cases has been rising at an increasingly rapid rate. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, the former Indiana State Health Commissioner, has identified Indianapolis as an “emerging hotspot.” Marion County, home to Indianapolis, is up to 1,117 confirmed cases.

The regional total of more than 24,000 cases would rank 9th in the world -- ahead of Switzerland, behind the United Kingdom. If the trend continues as it is, it would not be surprising for there to be more COVID-19 cases in the Midwest than in the U.K. by the beginning of next week.

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2. People approve of the job Governor Tony Evers is doing — especially now

The new Marquette University Law School Poll was released yesterday, and normally, that would mean a fresh Recombobulation Area column breaking down the results. But this one is obviously very different from anything else from the past year, as much of the poll’s focus looked at the COVID-19 crisis and its economic fallout, and less emphasis was on the Democratic primary that has been the headline item from polls going back to last August (the news there: Biden is back in the lead).

But among those results, one politician stood out with particularly positive numbers: Tony Evers. Some key results:

  • 76% approve his handling of the COVID-19 crisis

  • 63% of Republicans approve of how he's handling the crisis

  • 65% overall job approval

  • 54% favorability rating (highest of statewide elected officials)

The first-term governor’s job approval had already been fairly strong -- 50 percent or higher in five of the last six polls, dating back to August 2019. But a jump to 65 percent approval rating and just 29 percent disapproving of the job he’s doing is a significant shift.

And on his handling of the outbreak, his approval numbers are much higher than President Donald Trump, who has just a 51 percent approval rating, 25 points lower than Evers. 

Evers’ favorability rating (54% favorable - 28% unfavorable) is also higher than Ron Johnson (35% favorable - 32% unfavorable), Tammy Baldwin (40% - 39%), Donald Trump (45% - 50%), or either of the remaining Democratic candidates for president.

Is it possible that Tony Evers is the most popular politician in Wisconsin?

3. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel could really use a savior 

Local media, especially print media, is getting hit hard during the crisis. And Gannett, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s parent company, is responding by implementing a cutback system at its 100-plus newspapers where staffers will be furloughed one week a month through June. That’s going to impact some of the most consequential reporters in the state, the ones who are covering the COVID-19 crisis and the political landscape of the state at the center of the 2020 election

Now would be a good time for some billionaire with Milwaukee ties to buy the Journal Sentinel away from Gannett and restore local ownership to the paper. It seems to be working for the Los Angeles Times. And right now, at this moment, informing the public is a life-saving job.

Do any billionaires subscribe to this column? You should buy the newspaper. Even the good people of the Milwaukee Newspapers Guild agree:

4. The April 7 Election is a Mess

What I had originally planned to write about this week was the incredibly important Spring Election happening just next week here in Wisconsin. Wisconsin will be electing a State Supreme Court Justice to a 10-year term. The state’s largest city will be voting for mayor. Milwaukee County, home to more than 950,000 people, will be electing a brand new County Executive. Every Common Council and County Board seat is on the ballot. Nearly 100 referendum questions are being put to voters across the state, including one about the state constitution and another on funding the state’s largest school system.

It’s a really, really important election. And it probably shouldn’t happen right now. 

I hesitate to write anything about this because as soon as I finish this sentence, a new lawsuit could be filed, another judge could weigh in on the election, the Wisconsin Elections Commission could raise more concerns about available ballots, there could be more calls to postpone the election, Republicans could refuse another of the governor’s attempts at compromise, there could be another nonsense Voter ID spat, we could find out just how few cities are going to be able to staff polling locations -- oh, and thousands of people could be putting themselves in real medical jeopardy to go to the polls on Tuesday to vote in person. 

It’s all just an utter mess. And it’s a total no-win situation for the governor, who has tried all sorts of different ways to make this work without asking directly to postpone the election. No matter what decision ultimately comes down before Tuesday, if the election does indeed happen, the results will be invariably tainted to some extent, but they’ll still be ones we’ll have to live with -- some for four years, some for the next decade.

Gov. Evers made a solid proposal in asking the state to mail every registered voter an absentee ballot so that the election could be conducted completely by mail, but it came much too late in the process. Far worse, though, was the Republican-led Wisconsin State Legislature’s refusal to even entertain the option, and instead push forward with in-person voting, cravenly valuing the 10-year term of Walker appointee Daniel Kelly over the health of thousands of Wisconsinites who are under a stay-at-home order during an actual pandemic. 

We know that when votes are suppressed and turnout is low, Republicans win elections. It’s transparent as glass that that’s what Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and the Wisconsin GOP are angling for here.  

So it comes down to this: What is the right thing to do? 

And the bottom line is that, with lives at stake, the right thing to do is to postpone the election. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be delayed that long, just a few weeks even. It just has to be long enough to figure out a way to get absentee ballots into the hands of every voter, maintain the validity of the votes already cast, ensure the safety of the poll workers and clerks in charge of counting the votes.

Figuring out on the fly how to shift the state to 100 percent vote by mail election is not an ideal outcome. But if the alternative is to put people in the sights of a dangerous contagious disease that is spiraling out of control, the answer is to ensure the safety of your citizens and vote by mail. Voting by mail is not difficult. I voted by mail when I lived in Washington state. It’s a great process. It would be far easier to make that transition than to deal with the consequences of sending thousands of people to understaffed polling places where they might contract a disease that could kill them.

Democrats have tried every which way to hold this election while ensuring citizens’ safety. Republicans have stonewalled their attempts at every turn. If in-person voting goes forward on Tuesday, and someone contracts the virus and dies, that will be chiefly the fault of Vos, Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Republicans in the State Legislature. 

5. The biggest (under-the-radar) story in Wisconsin right now

The Republican-led Wisconsin State Legislature has not taken one single action since the crisis hit. Not. One.

Even in the Before Times, they were planning to take a nine-month break

Tony Evers proposed one (very reasonable!) $700 million plan to address the crisis on March 21, and the Republicans did nothing with it, and proposed no alternate plan. The governor has now proposed a second plan. Democratic lawmakers are urging their Republican counterparts to take it up. It remains to be seen if the Republican leadership in the legislature will do anything.

Restaurants and other small businesses have been asking legislative leaders to waive the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits -- something the governor has supported even before the crisis hit -- and they’ve done nothing about it. 

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, inundated with 160 calls per second as unemployment claims skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands, even had to go out of its way to clarify that the legislature would be needed to waive that waiting period. The legislature could waive that waiting period quickly and easily and the governor would undoubtedly sign it into law.

The legislature could even just go in for a lay-up and allow at-home alcohol delivery. Who would be opposed to that right about now?

The Republicans in charge of the State Legislature spent more than a year shouting about being a co-equal branch of government only to do not one single thing once a real crisis hit. This Republican inaction in the face of an unprecedented crisis is downright shameful, and it’s time for them to get to work. This passive attitude toward a life-threatening crisis will not soon be forgotten.

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6. A few Spring Election endorsements

The Recombobulation Area’s first official endorsement was to support David Crowley for Milwaukee County Executive. You can read why here

There are a few more races that I feel particularly strongly about, so here are three more Official Endorsements to add to the list:

- Jill Karofsky for Wisconsin Supreme Court

Voting for whoever is running against the destructive force that Trump-endorsed, Walker-appointed Daniel Kelly and the possibility of a 5-2 conservative stronghold on the State Supreme Court is a no-brainer, but Karofsky’s experience defending and advocating for crime victims, including victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, throughout her career makes her someone truly worth voting for. The state’s highest court needs more people who recognize the challenges that vulnerable people face, and that’s the type of Justice that Jill Karofsky could be for Wisconsin. 

- JoCasta Zamarripa for District 8 Alderperson

Going from Alderman Bob Donovan to Alderperson JoCasta Zamarripa in the 8th would be a seismically positive shift in the dynamic of the Milwaukee Common Council. Zamarripa, the first Latina and first openly bisexual woman elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature has represented Milwaukee well as a member of the State Assembly for the better part of the last decade, and would be a terrific addition to an increasingly diverse and gender-equitable Common Council as we begin the 2020s.

- Yes: MPS Referendum 

Let’s fund our schools. This isn’t complicated.

7. No one is overreacting to a pandemic

Though many loud voices on the right suggest that Evers’ and others action to close schools and businesses to protect against further outbreak is an overreaction, 86 percent of voters say it’s an “appropriate response.” Only 10 percent say it’s an “overreaction.”

Even 83 percent of Republicans say it’s an appropriate response. The group of voters in 

Marquette University Law School Poll’s crosstabs to most likely say it's an "overreaction" are those identifying as Very Conservative, and even 70% of them say it's been an "appropriate response."

The people suggesting this are extremists. Even people who indirectly suggest it’s an overreaction, like Senator Ron “death is an unavoidable part of life” Johnson, are extremists. Most Americans understand how serious this is, and that we’re all doing our part and sacrificing for each other to save lives. 

8. Vote absentee, and do it now

Today (April 2) is the last day to request a ballot. Find a way to get it done. Start here. There’s uncertainty abound, but requesting an absentee ballot and voting in this election is something you can control. Don’t hesitate. 

Do it.

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