Is Wisconsin what COVID-era politics looks like?

Let's hope not

Yesterday’s election in Wisconsin is a worrying picture of what might happen for global politics in 2020.

As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal wrote:

Tuesday's election will be the most undemocratic in the state’s history, in addition to putting at risk everything we've gained from the past three weeks of staying home and keeping our distance.

Will parties start using the pandemic and social distancing as a way to win elections by choosing procedures that give them the best chance of winning, no matter what public health demands? 

The signs out of the Badger State are not good.

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Why are we here?

Wisconsin’s primary was not about the presidential race. It was about the State Supreme Court.

The New York Times puts in best in their article: Why Wisconsin Republicans Insisted on an Election in a Pandemic.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders are on the ballot in Wisconsin, but the main event is the State Supreme Court race between the conservative incumbent justice, Daniel Kelly, and a liberal challenger, Jill Karofsky…

If Mr. Kelly wins, it would cement the conservative majority’s ability to block any future Democratic efforts to change voting laws and litigate an expected stalemate over congressional and state legislative boundaries during redistricting that will follow the 2020 census.

The Democratic Governor called for the election to be postponed to June and for absentee ballots to be distributed with extended deadlines. The legislature opposed it and the Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked that order. So even though the City of Milwaukee had only 5 polling locations open out of a planned 180, the election was still on. It led to this response from a Wisconsin native and polling expert:

What this could mean

If this election shows a major voter dropoff among Democratic voters, then Republicans will know that holding an election during social restrictions is an efficient and legal method of selective voter suppression. 

This is the COVID-19 equivalent of gerrymandering. It distorts what the voters want their government to be by placing institutional barriers to their voices. 

Wisconsin could be seen as an outlier. It has one of the most gerrymandered legislatures and its former governor once said “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” An odd remark, since those two cities are 15% of the state’s population.

One might argue that this is the most likely place for this type of action to take place first, and that the Governor contributed to the problem by not moving fast enough to a mail in election.

But even if Wisconsin is the first place where voting under a pandemic became a flashpoint, it is not likely to be the last.

Global problems

The below map from Wikipedia are countries where at least one election date has been changed because of COVID-19.

We could still be relatively early in our time of social distancing. If there are restrictions in place for the 18 months, in one form or another, many more elections will be held in these conditions. 

If parties or candidates see an advantage in higher or lower turnout, the debate around election procedures will become more politicized.

If they become extremely politicized, we will be pitting the immediate self-interest of the low turnout party against public health and the legitimacy of the elections. Would a losing candidate accept the results if they know that their supporters stayed home out of fear of catching a deadly virus, or if their strongest areas saw disproportionate lines? If they don’t accept the results - and have strong arguments why an election wasn’t fair - what happens next?

I don’t yet have a prediction for that.

Hopefully, we will look back to Wisconsin as the result of a series of events coinciding with the first weeks of social distancing. Governments will quickly adapt and elections will produce fairly chosen winners and losers.

However, that isn’t certain.

Instead, it’s one more political risk stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic that we must now track.

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Thanks for reading.

Chris

About Two Lanterns

Two Lanterns Advisory is a political risk consultancy based in Boston, Massachusetts. For information on training courses in political risk, hiring a consultant, or commissioning reports, check us out at http://www.twolanterns.co.