What not to do: Wisconsin’s April election is a cautionary tale for the nation

There was no excuse for disenfranchising and endangering Wisconsinites on April 7. Seven months from today, there will be no excuse for unprepared or unwilling elected officials failing their constituents, either.

Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin was a total failure of leadership. No Wisconsinite — and no person — should ever be faced with the impossible choice of risking their safety and the wellbeing of their community or giving up their right to participate in our democracy.

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service shared election day stories from Milwaukee’s only five polling places, where voters were forced to congregate and brave often hours-long lines to cast their ballots. “As an African American woman, I think it’s my right to vote every time. I think that voting is one of the only times you get the chance to express yourself and be heard in a way that counts, literally,” said Ashley, one of many voters who never received the absentee ballots they had requested.

Similarly, the Wisconsin State Journal reported the story of a Sun Prairie firefighter who, by election day, was still waiting to get the absentee ballot he had requested in mid-March. He didn’t want to vote in person on Tuesday for fear of contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to other emergency workers.

It’s clear that many Wisconsinites weren’t able to safely and effectively participate in our spring election, which went forward despite its clear threat to public health and to our democracy. The full extent of the damage, both to human health and to voter participation, may never be known. 

What is abundantly clear, though, is that with the right solutions, this could have been prevented. Elected officials here and across the country should act now to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

States have a constitutional obligation to provide all voters the opportunity to safely participate in elections. The COVID-19 outbreak has, among many other things, exposed how our failure to prepare for and respond to emergencies puts the very fabric of our democracy at risk.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen states scramble to come up with ways to safely run elections. Some states were able to quickly devise and implement strategies to do so. Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan decided weeks ago to turn his state’s April 28 special election into a vote by mail contest, and to postpone the state’s spring primary to June.

Of course, safe, secure elections can’t happen overnight. It takes time — as well as money and infrastructure — to print ballots, mail them out to voters, staff polling places and implement systems for tracking and counting votes. But what Wisconsin was missing, perhaps most of all, was the foresight and political will to make necessary changes to our spring election. There’s no doubt that our elected leaders could have come up with a plan much earlier, like officials of both parties did in other states. After all, COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. way back on January 19.

The good news is that Wisconsin and other states have an opportunity to learn from the debacle of Wisconsin’s April 7 election. State leaders must immediately look to the future. Wisconsin — along with every state — must quickly establish plans to have resilient elections this summer and in November. 

Fundamentally, these plans should ensure that every voter be able to access and cast their ballot safely, even while COVID-19 persists.

More specifically, states must untether themselves from the traditional voting model — the idea that everyone votes on one day at one place. We need to create more space, both literally and figuratively, for people to engage in the electoral process. One of the best ways to do that is to expand access to voting by mail, up to and including having the emergency option to mail every eligible voter a ballot directly.

Vote by mail isn’t perfect, and isn’t an option for everyone; it’s important that we provide and defend the sanctity of a private voting booth. But during a pandemic, the advantages and necessity of emergency universal vote by mail are clear. If, by November, allowing thousands of people to congregate at the polls still presents a public health risk, the state would have the ability to directly mail all registered voters an absentee ballot, which would allow them to make their voices heard from home.

Along with expanding vote by mail, states should expand access to voter registration, adjust deadlines, and make plans to accommodate voters for whom voting by mail doesn’t work. Building out all of these systems effectively requires additional infrastructure and a robust public education effort. 

It’s not clear how long in-person voting will be unsafe, but the smart thing to do is for the nation to plan for an election in November where COVID-19 still makes crowding in public places unsafe. That planning needs to start now. 

There was no excuse for disenfranchising and endangering Wisconsinites on April 7. Seven months from today, there will be no excuse for unprepared or unwilling elected officials failing their constituents, either.