Three weeks ago, we gaped at photos of swimsuit-clad spring breakers who refused to leave Florida’s beaches, even as the rest of the country sheltered in place in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
This morning, I gaped at images of Wisconsin voters lined up outside polling places for the state’s primary election, which was held despite an ongoing statewide stay-at-home order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. In some locations, the line to vote snaked out and around buildings, into parking lots, and down the block. Some of the voters were standing six feet apart or wearing masks; many were not.
I grew up in Wisconsin, the land of Kohl's coupons, Racine Kringle, butter burgers, and snowblowers. Though I now live in Washington, D.C., I still identify with the unfussy, good-natured pragmatism that characterizes so many of the Wisconsinites who raised me.
Yet what I see in my home state right now is neither good natured nor pragmatic. Wisconsinites have been asked to risk spreading a highly contagious virus in order to exercise their right to vote on a ballot that will decide the state’s presidential primary, a new member of the state’s Supreme Court, and various other local elections, including Milwaukee’s mayoral election. One Milwaukee voter told BuzzFeed she felt her only options were to “Stay home and feel defeated, or go out, make my voice heard, and potentially contract a horrible virus."
There were other options, of course. Wisconsin could have joined the other 15 states that opted to delay their primaries. (True, this delay would have been trickier in Wisconsin: The date of the primary election is set by the state law and any changes would have required the bipartisan effort of governor, Democrat Tony Evers, and the Republican-controlled state legislature. It also would have required some provision for what to do about local elected officials on the ballot whose term was set to begin in late April. Tricky? Yes. Impossible? No; Wisconsites are resourceful folks.) Wisconsin could also have allowed extra time for folks to receive and mail their ballots; some Wisconsin mayors even suggested the entire election be conducted by mail.
In the end, all these measures failed: Gov. Evers’ proposal to hold the election entirely by mail was rejected by Republican lawmakers. When Evers issued an executive order postponing the election until early June, the conservative majority of state’s Supreme Court overturned it. Even a modest proposal to extend the mail in-date to April 13 — one week — was challenged by the state’s Republican leaders and rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that ballots postmarked after April 7 won’t count.
As a result, Wisconsin has put the health of its own residents at risk — especially those who are elderly or immunocompromised — and furthered the state’s disturbing history of voter disenfranchisement. With few volunteers, many polling locations were closed, resulting in long lines. Even those who’d tried to vote from the safety of their own home weren’t necessarily successful. One woman showed up to polling station in Kenosha, Wis., covered in plastic; she was immunocompromised and the absentee ballot she’d requested in mid-March never arrived.
The consequences of this election — voter disenfranchisement and health risks — will also fall disproportionally on Wisconsinites of color. Take Milwaukee County: Typically, the county has 180 polling locations, but on April 7, there were only five polling locations available. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in extremely long lines. And though Wisconsinites are doing their best to maintain distance, that extra waiting time widens the opportunities for the virus to spread. Coupled with the fact that black residents already account for more than 73 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in a county that is 28 percent black, the images of Milwaukee voters waiting in long lines becomes especially grim.
As Wisconsin’s Election Day wore on, I saw a photo of one voter waiting in line with a face mask and holding a sign that said, “This is ridiculous.” I had to agree; there seemed to be so many good reasons not to hold the primary and few good reasons to proceed. Some have speculated that Republicans insisted on holding the elections in hopes that decreased turnout will boost conservative candidates; Trump himself commented that Democrats’ proposals to expand voting options during the coronavirus pandemic would result in “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
I try to avoid speculation. Many of the Wisconsinites I know are moderate Republicans, deeply committed to their faith and especially passionate about pro-life issues. Yet while Republican politicians claim to be “pro-life,” their actions in Wisconsin have very clearly put the lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations at risk. The verse that comes to mind is Matthew 7:20, “you will know them by their fruits.”