How Wisconsin's Democracy Unraveled—And Made the Case for National Vote-by-Mail | Opinion

My home state of Wisconsin was the first state to hold an election during the coronavirus pandemic this Tuesday, and as expected, it went terribly.

But terribly is really too kind a word to describe it. A week of complete chaos, aided by Republican obstruction and conservative court interventions, led to an Election Day where many voters were forced to sacrifice their health to vote during a pandemic and others were told their vote wouldn't even count. The lesson from Wisconsin was simple: This can never happen again. Come November, every voter should be able to vote by mail in the federal election.

The disorder begin when, on the Friday before the election, with medical experts increasingly warning against having an election during the pandemic, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers called a special session on Saturday for the Republican-controlled legislature to discuss postponing the election. Evers proposed allowing a vote-by-mail election, including sending a ballot to every registered voter who had not requested one, and to extend the time for those ballots to be received.

What did the Republican legislature do? They gaveled in on Saturday for the special session and immediately gaveled out, ignoring any public health concerns and the governor's request for delay. A federal court on Friday extended deadlines for absentee ballots, only to have another court on Saturday strike some of the changes. In short, state Republicans refused any and all solutions to protect Wisconsinites, who feared for their health in a state that has been under a shelter-in-place order for weeks.

Despite Republican inaction, Evers moved forward to protect our community. On the Monday before the election, he issued an executive order delaying the Wisconsin election until June 9. Republicans in the state immediately appealed it.

Their appeal went to the Republican-majority state Supreme Court (where one of the conservative seats was up for re-election on Tuesday), which quickly rejected the governor's executive order and mandated the election happen during a global pandemic in a state with over 2,700 reported cases of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, thousands of voters had still not received their absentee ballots. That meant they could not mail in their ballots to be received by Election Day. As of Monday morning, the federal court ruling that absentee ballots could be accepted through April 13 still stood. Republicans in the state had challenged this and were waiting for their appeal to be taken up by the Supreme Court.

So as Republicans in Wisconsin fought to ensure an election would happen on Tuesday for the sake of "democracy," they simultaneously sought to suppress the vote of thousands of Wisconsinites who had yet to even receive absentee ballots.

Hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected an election delay, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court of the United States rubber-stamped voter suppression in Wisconsin and refused to allow an extended deadline for absentee ballots. Five justices who could not appear in person together in the court—because they were practicing social distancing during the pandemic—ruled that voters in Wisconsin would have to risk their lives to vote in person if they wanted to vote at all.

You can't make this sort of stuff up.

Voters were forced to choose between participating in our democracy and protecting their own health and the health of their community.

Wisconsin primary
Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear on April 7. No one felt safe, writes U.S. Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. Derek R. Henkle/AFP/Getty

Election Day itself was just as chaotic. Many voters started the day not even understanding if they were allowed to vote or if the court orders meant their vote no longer counted. There was confusion on whether voters needed witness signatures and who could qualify as a witness. As the polls opened at 7 a.m. across the state, early reports of hundreds of people lining up at limited polling locations waiting to cast their ballot trickled in. After waiting hours in line, exposing themselves to the threat of coronavirus, many voters understandably gave up and left.

Cities across the state were completely unprepared to accommodate a pandemic election. Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city, where 40 percent of residents are black, only had five of 180 polling sites open. Green Bay had two. Waukesha had one. Hundreds of National Guard troops were called by the governor to fill in for a shortage of poll workers. The speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Robin Vos, was seen assuring press and voters that voting was safe—all while he wore head-to-toe personal protective equipment. No one felt safe.

We still don't know the results of Tuesday's election, but we know Wisconsin's democracy suffered a major blow this week. Republicans in the state legislature built upon a decade-long fight in Wisconsin to suppress the voice of voters—especially voters of color—ensuring that anyone who took shelter-in-place seriously would not vote on Tuesday.

But if nothing else, our state should serve as a turning point for the nation. This can never happen again. This pandemic has no specific end date. While we want it to be over as soon as possible, we need to prepare for what happens when it isn't. It's an election year, and no one should have to choose between their health and their vote. Our job is to ensure every person's ability to vote is protected. The only way to do that is with nationwide vote-by-mail available to voters in every state and territory in the United States.

Anything less is a failure of our democracy.

Congressman Mark Pocan is the U.S. representative for Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.