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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 27: Crucial General Election State Struggling With Its Primary

As we head slowly and erratically towards November, I remain alert to any news about general election battleground states, so I wrote about perhaps the most crucial one at New York:

Of all the states struggling to hold elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it might make sense to pay special attention to Wisconsin, which is plowing ahead with an April 7 presidential and local government primary despite all sorts of legal and logistical problems. This is the state, after all, that many analysts think could decide the presidential contest in November. And if COVID-19 still haunts voters in the fall, Wisconsin’s past heavy reliance on in-person voting (only 6 percent of ballots were cast by mail in the 2018 midterms there) could make it a source of massive controversy if turnout patterns are strange.

Wisconsin is one of the 24 states that don’t require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot by mail, but do require that voters proactively request one. Heading toward April 7, an unprecedented number of voters are doing just that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“As of March 16, 134,556 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. By March 19, that grew to 315,429. By March 23, it grew to 482,321. As of Thursday, the total was 699,431.”

That’s compared to 170,000 mail ballots cast in 2018. And it’s impossible at this point to tell how this will affect the shape of the electorate or the speed and fairness of vote counting:

“[T]his shift poses all sorts of questions and problems. It is potentially overloading a system never designed for mail voting. It is likely to overwhelm all the local election clerks who must process and eventually count these ballots.

“Turnout will undoubtedly be depressed by the fact that people can’t and won’t vote en masse at the polls on election day. That raises fairness issues because some types of voters may be less likely to vote by mail (younger voters, lower-income voters) than others.”

And even though the decision to move ahead with this primary was bipartisan (Democratic governor Tony Evers and the legislature’s Republican leadership), there are multiple fears the situation could distort the outcome:

As you may remember, Wisconsin has for a decade been ground zero for partisan polarization. And the primary is already the subject of at least four lawsuits seeking to modify or delay or postpone the event:

“[T]he Democratic National Committee sued last week to try to extend absentee voting. That resulted in an order that reinstated online voter registration until March 30 …

“One of the new lawsuits, led by voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, seeks to put off the election for weeks or months. It’s in line with a lawsuit Green Bay’s clerk filed this week to postpone the election …

“[Souls to the Polls] argued problems conducting the election would fall hardest on minorities and would result in violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.”

On top of everything else, a sudden shift to voting by mail could significantly slow down the vote count and publication of results. Maybe that’s no biggie on April 7, but if the presidential general election comes down to Wisconsin and the count takes days, you can imagine the wild conspiracy theories that will take wing.

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