Just a dozen days ago, making it safer and easier to vote during the coronavirus outbreak was a totally bipartisan cause. But once that sentiment faced its first practical test, in Wisconsin, polarized partisanship snapped back with extraordinary intensity — posing yet another threat to a fair 2020 election and Americans' confidence in the democratic process.
With long lines of socially distanced voters at a shrunken roster of short-staffed polling places on Tuesday, from sprawling Milwaukee to tiny Moquah, the parties delivered opposite messages to those confused and angry about why the primary was even happening and anxious about the medical risks of doing their civic duty.
Republicans — having kept the primary on track thanks to last-minute victories in a state Legislature, state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court all with friendly conservative majorities — pressed their supporters to go to the polls in force.
Democrats — rebuffed in their efforts to postpone the in-person voting and extend the time for returning absentee ballots — told their supporters to stay safely at home and canceled all their get-out-the-vote plans, which were aimed at mobilizing turnout in urban areas.
At a time when the country is counting on rational, collaborative decision-making at all levels of government to combat a historic public health crisis, the split provided a sobering warning.
"If one side of the political equation is willing to risk their voters' lives by encouraging them to engage in highly-risky in person voting and the other side isn't, then there are massive problems that await the country in November," progressive analyst Sam Stein of the Daily Beast tweeted.
"The good news is that other states have time to avoid a Wisconsin-style FUBAR," wrote conservative analyst and Bulwark editor Charles Sykes. But the bad news is "Wisconsin is a dry run for what's coming for the rest of the country in November: Elections roiled in partisan rancor, dysfunction, voter suppression, and questionable legitimacy."
The suddenly cavernous political divide over voting and health was a reminder of the central truism in the voting rights debate: Republicans are confident they do best when fewer people vote, while Democrats like their chances better with a bigger turnout.
But the fight in Wisconsin looked all the more remarkable because of what happened just two weeks ago: Both sides in Congress broke from their partisan patterns long enough to provide $400 million to expand voting by mail, early in-person voting, online registration and other measures to smooth elections during a public health emergency — Republicans joining Democrats in recognizing the status quo could prevent millions from taking part in the presidential election.
When an unusually unified coalition of democracy reform groups described that as an inadequate downpayment — and asserted five times as much would be needed to prepare for the unique circumstances — Republicans initially sounded ready to go along with another big cash infusion.
But congressional GOP support for more election assistance has softened in recent days, even as bipartisan consensus has formed behind the need to produce another economic rescue package at the Capitol in the next month.
The money has become a sticking point in the early negotiations since President Trump derided some Democrats' efforts to make the states expand their absentee voting as a condition for a federal grab.
That would produce "levels of voting that if you ever agree to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again," he said on "Fox & Friends" a week ago, and at a Friday news conference he asserted without evidence that "a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting."
Some Republicans are taking that as a sign Trump will not support an additional appropriation, and their defense of the president only intensified since several of the most progressive voting rights groups described his comments as a confession the GOP was more interested in voter suppression than public safety.
"It's clear that he would rather force people to put themselves at risk in order to exercise their right to vote than ensure that every eligible American can safely cast their ballot," said Ryan Thomas of Stand Up America, one of the groups lobbying loudest for another $1.6 billion in election aide — and hoping to motivate their core supporters on the left to apply grassroots pressure as well.
But leaders of some other influential progressive organizations pushing for the money, among them Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice, have pressed their lobbying colleagues to tamp down on the inflammatory talk for risk of alienating influential Republicans who have been helpful so far.
"Such rhetoric is, frankly, not very not helpful," he said on a conference call with members of the coalition last week.
Topping the list of Republicans key to the success of the effort are Roy Blunt, a member of the Senate majority leadership who was once the top elections official in Missouri, and Rodney Davis of Illinois, the senior GOP member of the House committee with jurisdiction over election policy. And in recent days both have sounded ambivalent about backing more money.
Such partisan pressures are intensifying on both sides, and in venues from coast to coast.
After Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger last week mailed absentee ballot request forms to all of Georgia's 6.9 million active voters, for example, he got such enormous pushback from fellow Republicans in power in the state that on Monday he convened a special task force to investigate allegations of fraudulent use of the vote-by-mail option.
He conceded election cheating is rare in the state but said it could flare up during the May 19 primary, when voting in person is being discouraged. "We want to make sure," he said, "that troublemakers can't do things that don't abide by that principle of one person, one vote."
Voting in person was discouraged in Wisconsin as well, and more than 1.3 million absentee ballots were mailed out in recent weeks as the legal and political maneuvering over the primary intensified along with the spread of infection.
But they must be postmarked by Tuesday night in order to be counted under the last of the partisan victories the GOP scored Monday.
In its first ruling connected to the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court refused to continue absentee voting for six days, saying the federal judge who ordered that extension had exceeded his authority. The five justices named by Republican presidents formed the majority in favor of doing what the state GOP wanted, while all four Democratic appointees would have done what the Democrats asked — a sign the court may struggle against charges of partisanship handling future challenges to election laws while the Covid-19 crisis persists.
"The court's suggestion that the current situation is not 'substantially different' from 'an ordinary election' boggles the mind," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent.
The court ruled hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down — with four conservative justices voting one way and the two liberals the other — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers last-minute executive order postponing the in-person voting. The challenge to his authority was brought by the GOP-controlled Legislature, which over the weekend rebuffed the governor's call for special legislation delaying the primary.
Justice Daniel Kelly, who is up for reelection Tuesday in the second-most-prominent race of the day, abstained Monday night.
Also on the ballot are 77 pledged delegates in the Democratic presidential primary, and former Vice President Joe Biden is favored to win with ease no matter the turnout. That would push Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont a step closer to out of the race.
No matter who wins the nomination, however, Wisconsin looms as a central Electoral College battleground, another motivation for both sides to win now in order to position themselves best for the fall.
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