This began life as a piece intended for Crikey early last week which never got submitted, because events kept overtaking it. So I’ve taken the opportunity to junk the requirement for brevity and examine last week’s events in Wisconsin in due detail, which strike me as being the clearest indication yet of the precipice on which American democracy is presently tottering. It also serves as a launching pad for the latest thread on American politics, in lieu of a recent submission from Adrian Beaumont.
As distraught liberals confronted the reality of a Donald Trump presidency after his win in November 2016, two fears loomed especially large: how he might turn the emergence of a major national crisis to his advantage, and what his strongman instincts could mean for the shape of future elections. As fate would have it, there is now the prospect of the two converging, with coronavirus threatening to extend its long shadow over the presidential election in November. The alarming potential for a democratic miscarriage was laid bare a fortnight ago in Wisconsin, a high-stakes swing state that illustrates, as The Economist ($) would have it, ”what happens when partisanship, left unchecked, leaches into the soil from which political institutions grow”.
Where primaries in sixteen other states had at least been postponed, elections in Wisconsin proceeded according to schedule mostly thanks to the intransigence of Republicans and the ever more naked partisanship of courts that are all too often called upon to adjudicate political disputes. The main point of interest in the elections to the world at large was a Democratic primary that now looks like being the last hurrah of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the suspension of which he announced the following day. However, the ballot also included numerous races for local government and judicial offices, the biggest prize being a seat on the state’s seven-member Supreme Court.
The Republicans’ determination that the election should proceed was driven by the prospect of depressed turnout in Democrat-voting urban areas, where the challenges caused by coronavirus are all the greater. However, the Democrat Governor, Tony Evers, was widely thought to wear a share of the blame, having squandered the weeks before the election with timid pleading that he lacked the power to act. Certainly Evers has grown accustomed to being boxed in by conservative majorities on the state’s legislature and Supreme Court, which at least partly arises from powers having been stripped from him by the legislature and his Republican predecessor, Scott Walker, in the period between the electorate’s repudiation of them at the November 2018 mid-terms and the official start of Evers’ term. However, it may not have been politically feasible for the Republicans to have blocked Evers’ path had he pushed the issue, given how many Republican administrations in other states were delaying elections at the same time (no doubt because the only elections on their schedules were primaries — fights in which they had no dog).
As it transpired, Evers was not roused to action until he proposed an all-postal ballot the week before the election, which the Republicans contemptuously dismissed when he recalled the legislature over the following weekend. This was followed by Evers’ attempt on the eve of the April 7 election to suspend in-person voting through an executive order and allow postal voting to continue through to June, which was promptly scotched by the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a six-fold increase in postal vote applications as compared with the 2016 primaries was proving too much for the postal service — according to data from the state’s bipartisan election commission (as reported in the New York Times ($)), more than 11,600 requests for postal ballots were not met, and 185,000 ballots that were sent out were not received on time. Evers did succeed in getting a federal judge to allow postal votes to be admitted if they arrived within the six days after the election, potentially saving an estimated 27,500 votes, but the decision was overturned by the 5-4 conservative majority on the US Supreme Court — meeting remotely due to the threat of the virus — in the face of a blistering dissent from liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Those who didn’t receive postal ballots had to choose between surrendering to the Republicans’ calculated effort to disenfranchise them and turning out to vote in person in defiance of the logic of the state’s stay-at-home order. Election day duly played out as a black comedy, highlighted by the unforgettable image of Robin Vos, Republican Speaker of the state’s lower house, telling voters it was “incredibly safe to go out” while himself dressed in a full panoply of personal protective equipment. As a result of the public health emergency, a massive shortfall of election workers confronted local authorities in the state’s urban Democratic strongholds, notably Milwaukee with its 40% African-American population, where authorities were only able to operate five out of a planned 180 polling places. Things naturally proceeded more smoothly in rural areas, where social distancing is more easily accomplished and infection rates are lower, and which no less naturally are far stronger for the Republicans.
With admirable clarity, The Economist last week offered the view that “a party that considers pursuing a lower turnout to be a legitimate electoral strategy does not deserve to win elections”. As such, liberal challenger Jill Karofsky’s trouncing of conservative Supreme Court incumbent Daniel Kelly by a margin of 55.3% to 44.7% was a genuinely inspiring result. It reduces the 5-2 conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to 4-3, leaving a majority within liberal reach when the next election is held in 2023. The court will at that time have an important role to play in determining electoral boundaries that will be redrawn in the wake of this year’s decennial census, including the outrageous gerrymander that ensured the Republicans held huge majorities in both houses of the legislature even after the “blue wave” of 2018, which also saw Tony Evers defeat Scott Walker. The result is also encouraging for Joe Biden’s prospects in the strategically crucial mid-west, as it is consistent with the turnout surge he enjoyed in normally Republican-voting suburbs in the Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday.
Despite the logistical disaster attending postal voting, the volume of votes that made it in on time was such that overall turnout was, by the reckoning of Sam Wang at The Hill, about normal for an election held concurrently with a competitive primary for only one party. The success of postal voting in covering the democratic deficit helps explain the culture war that has erupted around calls for an all-postal election in November should worst come to worst, fuelled by the President himself. Responding to the question of a journalist last week, who pointedly noted that he himself was a habitual postal voter, Donald Trump spoke airily of postal voting leading to “thousands of votes” being “dumped in a location and then all of a sudden you lose elections that you think you’re going to win”. In this he has naturally received support from state politicians in his orbit and conservative media.
Notwithstanding there being no evidence that any such thing has ever occurred, this assertion is lightly creditable as Trumpian BS goes — with no allowance for official oversight or assurance of a secret ballot, postal voting is indeed less secure than the alternatives, and council elections in the United Kingdom furnish low-level examples of it going awry. Nonetheless, four American states (soon to be joined by a fifth) have been conducting their elections entirely by post without incident for some time, and the need for its availability to be expanded in the current environment can hardly be a matter of legitimate controversy.
There are some Republicans who recognise this, such as Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio, which was among the states that postponed primaries scheduled for last week and will now hold it largely by post. However, accommodating this would require a vast expansion of infrastructure that Republicans in Congress are unwilling to properly accommodate, agreeing to only $400 million out of $2 billion proposed for that end by Democrats as part of the coronavirus bailout package
Whether or not this is truly in the Republicans’ interest is far from clear. Certainly in Australia the familiar pattern of postal voting is that it skews conservative, owing to its popularity among older and rural voters. But in the United States, where elections are conducted on a weekday, this factor is counter-balanced by a broader effect of improved access and thus higher turnout — which, as Trump has observed in moments of candour, is something his own side of politics has every incentive to avoid. However, given the generally neutral effect, it’s hard not to suspect that Trump and his enablers were in no way discouraged by the spectacle that unfolded in Wisconsin, seeing in it the potential for a crisis election in November in which the result will be determined either by a dramatically suppressed electorate or extraordinary interventions by state legislatures and the courts. But by the same token, the result offers hope that the will of the people, should it indeed go against Trump, will not be so easily thwarted.