The Tragedy of the Wisconsin Spring Election

Wisconsin Republicans have been tearing at the fabric of the state's democracy for the better part of the last decade, and holding in-person voting during a pandemic is their lowest moment yet.

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

The line forming outside of Marshall High School, one of five polling places open on Election Day in the city of Milwaukee. Photo by Max Love.

The place I keep thinking about is Milwaukee Marshall High School.

It's a huge high school with little parking in a residential neighborhood in a majority African American part of the city, not far from where the coronavirus outbreak is peaking. And thousands of people could show up there on Tuesday, April 7, for Wisconsin’s Spring Election. 

Marshall is one of only five polling places (down from 180) that the city of Milwaukee is able to staff with poll workers for the April 7 election, and election officials are saying that 10,000 voters could show up at each location. 

On Monday, April 6, the city of Milwaukee topped 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. For Milwaukee County, that number rose to 1,304. In just 18 days, 45 people in the county have died from coronavirus. 

Of those 45 people, 33 were black. Milwaukee’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Jeanette Kowalik -- herself a Marshall High School alum -- has for weeks emphasized how the virus is disproportionately affecting African-Americans, and was among the first to track and analyze the racial demographics of coronavirus patients and victims, revealing how the coronavirus is exacerbating the already-stark racial disparities in America’s most segregated city and most economically unequal metro area

Dr. Kowalik — a public health expert, need that be reminded — has said she doesn’t think it’s safe to conduct in-person voting, and Monday night, said, “If I had the authority to delay this election to save lives, I would’ve done it by now.”

But the public health experts aren’t the people who are making the decisions about this election. Politicians are. And they are not acting with the well-being of the people of Milwaukee who are most affected by this virus in mind.

Despite the life-threatening pandemic that has already claimed the lives of 77 Wisconsinites in less than 20 days, and the “stay-at-home” order that has closed schools and businesses in order to flatten the curve and protect public health, Wisconsin is going forward with in-person voting on Tuesday, April 7. 

Gov. Tony Evers presided over the only one of the state’s three branches of government to work to stop in-person voting and prevent a potential public health catastrophe, signing an executive order to move in-person voting that was appealed by Republican legislative leadership and subsequently shot down by the conservative majority on the State Supreme Court. 

And after one of the more chaotic and infuriating days in the state’s political history, it feels like democracy in Wisconsin is unraveling. There is no reason for this election to go forward as planned during a life-threatening pandemic. 

And yet, the election is happening, despite the pleas of thousands of health professionals and dozens of local leaders across the state. It’s happening despite thousands of poll workers choosing not to work, fearing for their health and the massive more than 100 communities statewide unable to staff polling places. It’s happening despite thousands of absentee ballots not arriving in time to allow people to legally vote by mail. Not one thing has changed the view of the Republican leadership in Wisconsin, who are steadfast in their refusal to make any changes, instead charging forward with in-person voting, showing complete disregard for the health and safety of the people they’re supposed to be leading. 

Evers and Democrats are by no means blameless in this Spring Election saga, but to say they are equally or even comparably responsible for what’s transpiring in this election is patently false. Evers acted too late, but he acted as he should have, and he gave Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Republican legislative leadership every opportunity to cooperate with his proposal and work together to delay the election and shift to voting by mail. They refused, and now we’re all at greater risk.

But for state Republicans, acting in this manner is nothing new. We already knew that there is no such thing as too low for Vos, Fitzgerald and the Wisconsin Republican Party. There is no depth to which they will not sink to consolidate power and continue Wisconsin’s screeching right turn.

In many ways, it feels as if this action is the culmination of what’s been happening in Wisconsin for the past decade. Pull any thread from this moment of unraveling and you’ll find something that has come undone in recent years. 

It could be the thread from the outrageously gerrymandered legislature that gave Republicans a 64-35 advantage in the State Assembly despite Democrats receiving 190,000 more votes in 2018. It could be the voter roll purge lawsuit that aims to put one more obstacle between people and the polls. It could be the voter ID law designed to suppress votes and elect Republicans. Replacing the Government Accountability Board with the Wisconsin Elections Commission and installing a former Republican state legislator as chairman. It could be the way Republicans have remade the State Supreme Court over the past five years that has given them a failsafe for the most reckless of legislative action. It could be Act 10. It could be divide-and-conquer. The lame-duck session that stripped powers from the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general even before they took office. And it’s the complete and total inaction on the coronavirus crisis in the weeks preceding the election fiasco. The list goes on and on. And it all connects.

Pull any thread.

Wisconsin’s democracy has been coming apart at the seams for the last decade. Follow any thread from the decisions made by Republicans over the last week in Wisconsin and you’ll find the fabric of the state has been fraying since conservatives rode into office during the 2010 Obama backlash election.

And this action — valuing a conservative’s potential 10-year term on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court over the health and safety of thousands of Wisconsinites — by Vos, Fitzgerald and the rest of the Wisconsin Republican Party might be the most craven, despicable and outright anti-democratic act of anything that’s happened since.

At no point during this crisis have they taken it seriously. Their action to refuse the governor’s proposal and appeal it to the State Supreme Court is the only legislative action they’ve taken since the crisis hit. They haven’t done one single thing on unemployment, on health care, on anything. On his personal Twitter account, Vos has downplayed the threat at every turn, even retweeting celebrity COVID-19 denier, Dr. Drew. The day before the election, instead of working to protect Wisconsinites, 40 GOP legislators petitioned the governor to re-open golf courses. They are not taking this seriously, and people are dying. 

The responsibility for this disaster of an election — where voter disenfranchisement has reached unfathomable extremes and health and safety has been completely tossed aside — lies with Wisconsin Republicans. They caused the chaos and confusion of this voting process with their complete disregard for human life at a time of unprecedented crisis. And in their refusal to halt in-person voting, Vos, Fitzgerald and Republican leadership is now responsible for any loss of life that results from putting people in harm's way during this vicious pandemic. We cannot let them forget what they’ve done here; they are inviting a situation that could very likely result in death. 

These leaders should no longer be in charge. Let me be clear: Robin Vos should resign. Scott Fitzgerald should resign. They are not fit to hold elected office in the great state of Wisconsin.

And so at polling places across the state, people are making impossible decisions over whether they should risk their lives, or the lives of family members or people in their community who could die from coronavirus, in order to vote. They’ll have to make those decisions at places like Marshall High School, which sits in a census tract where there have already been 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, where already marginalized black voters will be forced to endure a voting process unlike anything anyone has ever seen. They’ll have to choose between risking their health and risking their democracy at a time when the virus is less than two weeks away from peaking in Wisconsin and Milwaukee area health systems are 10 days away from reaching capacity with ventilators and ICU beds.

It’s unconscionable. And people are forced to make that impossible decision because of the way one party has systematically pulled democracy apart at the seams over the past decade, resulting in an election that is neither fair nor free, and is dangerously unsafe.

I am going to be thinking about Milwaukee Marshall on Election Day, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time afterwards. It’s a place been a fair amount over the past year, taking my daughter to ballet, swimming, and soccer (the school hosts many classes and activities through Milwaukee Recreation). And I just can't stop thinking about that place and what might happen there during and after and because of this election that absolutely should not be happening this way at this time.

This is a tragedy.

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