Preventing a Wisconsin-Style Fiasco in Fall Elections

Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin was a travesty. Citizens stood for hours in lines that stretched for blocks, forced to risk their own health and the health of their families in order to fulfill their civic duty and exercise their constitutional right to vote. They were failed by politicians, election officials, and the courts.

 What the country witnessed in Milwaukee, Duluth, and other communities in Wisconsin demonstrates the critical need for lawmakers to take immediate and bipartisan action to protect American elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Around the world, flawed responses to the health crisis have threatened to undermine voters’ confidence in their democratic institutions. In Poland, for example, the government is moving forward with a presidential election scheduled for May 10, despite significant doubts regarding the fairness of the process. The ruling Law and Justice Party has used a series of unilateral maneuvers to keep its plans on track, including last-minute changes to electoral laws. As things stand now, Poles will be able to vote by mail, but the electoral authorities will only have a few days to implement the massive postal balloting operation, increasing the potential for fraud and other irregularities. Moreover, ordinary campaign activities are seriously impeded by the health crisis, giving incumbent forces a substantial advantage.

 In Wisconsin, voting proceeded for the Democratic presidential primary, the state Supreme Court, and other offices after the Democratic governor, in the final days before the scheduled elections, attempted to postpone in-person voting until June and extend the absentee balloting deadline, despite opposition from the Republican-controlled legislature. The Wisconsin Supreme Court quickly struck down the postponement, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the extended absentee voting on the evening before Election Day. Thousands of voters who requested absentee ballots but had not yet received them were consequently faced with a terrible choice between disenfranchisement and a potentially dangerous trip to polling places.

Many countries have postponed upcoming elections, recognizing the limitations on their ability to deliver a process that is both safe and fair, but they will have to work quickly if the delayed polls are to be conducted in a timely manner. The countries whose elections have remained on schedule, such as South Korea and New Zealand, have either successfully contained the virus or still have many months to prepare for new voting procedures.

Voters are poorly served when politicians and courts wait until the last minute to make electoral decisions. The Wisconsin debacle underscored the fact that states have no time to lose in planning for the November general elections. To ensure that all Americans can exercise their rights and that the field is level for all candidates, an investment of both time and resources will be necessary.

First, initial steps need to be taken to expand postal voting or absentee ballot programs, for instance, by removing requirements that voters offer one of several specified excuses to justify their need for an absentee ballot. Military personnel have had access to voting by mail for decades, as have certain other voters across the United States. Five states successfully conduct their elections entirely by mail, and 21 use postal ballots for local elections. To ensure that voters can exercise their franchise in November without jeopardizing public health, all states should move now to permit universal voting by mail and provide for the time and capacity to process the ballots in a secure and orderly manner.

Second, Congress needs to supply states with ample resources to implement these changes successfully. Federal lawmakers should work with state election officials to devise solutions that preserve the integrity of elections and guarantee that all eligible voters can participate. Congress must also shore up the ailing postal service, whose workers have been reporting for duty under hazardous conditions throughout the present crisis, so that it can perform its vital role in the fall.

Third, provisions should be made well in advance for people unable to vote by mail because of disability or other reasons, or who choose to vote in person. States must have the means to sanitize polling sites and protect poll workers, and to maintain social distancing through early voting, extended voting hours, and the addition of polling sites.

Electoral resilience, and especially universal postal voting, should not be a partisan issue. Voting by mail has been successfully implemented in states as politically diverse as Hawaii and Utah and has been shown to increase voter turnout and down-ballot engagement while reducing state administrative costs. Republican governors in Maryland and Ohio have rejected narrow partisan wrangling and worked with legislators of both parties to protect the safety of their citizens and shift to all-mail voting for the states’ elections later this month. 

Rather than trying to thwart or outflank one another to score short-term political points, public officials of both parties should take their cues from Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland, and work together to serve voters’ interests and give them confidence that American elections will be free, fair, and safe.

Alexis Schuler is the vice president for advocacy and communications at Freedom House.

Sarah Repucci is vice president for research and analysis at Freedom House.

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