In April, Wisconsin showed America the disastrous potential of in-person voting during the COVID-19 outbreak. With a state Supreme Court seat up for grabs, the Republican-controlled Legislature nixed the Democratic governor’s proposals to delay the election or to distribute mail ballots widely. State election law and two federal lawsuits, one of which shot up to the U.S. Supreme Court, nudged the absentee ballot deadline around the calendar.
“Working under different sets of rules made it totally screwed up,” Milwaukee County court clerk John Barrett told me. He voted absentee early.
Election Day brought a mess and an instructive outcome. In Milwaukee, five poll sites opened instead of the usual 180 because of a worker shortage. Voters stood waiting for hours in lines made much longer by social distancing. Health-care workers found that at least 52 people who voted in-person or worked polling stations developed COVID-19, though there is no way to know if the stations were the source of the infection.
The scenario is rightly propelling vote-by-mail advocates across the country to push for more states to convert.
They ought also to examine Washington’s low-stakes — but still burdensome — special election that ended Tuesday. A sliver of the state, about 52,000 voters in 10 counties, had local tax levies to vote on. Early returns indicate most will pass, despite the plummeting economy. The 45% turnout is the highest April figure since 2011.
What it took to carry out a by-the-rules election is the real story. Of the counties running April elections, Mason County had the most voters eligible to cast ballots, about 14,300, and a courthouse locked to the public for weeks. To allow in-person voter registration until polls closed — a new state mandate — County Auditor Paddy McGuire put forms on a vestibule table and retrieved completed ones after the visitor returned to the parking lot. Instead of sending elections staff in carpooling pairs to collect ballots from drop boxes, he had workers caravan in separate cars.
“It probably isn’t the absolute letter of the law in terms of compliance,” he told me during the final hours of Election Day, “but what we do as election officials is figure stuff out.”
He’s searching for a temporary office for the November rush. A closed Bank of America building caught his eye, with social distancing-friendly teller windows behind bulletproof glass.
“The beauty of vote by mail is that it’s pretty darned adaptable to global pandemics from a voter standpoint,” he said.
Wisconsin demonstrated the risks of inflexibility. Lessons from its debacle and Washington’s very different experience need to resonate fast across party lines, statewide and nationally.
One is that an angry voter is a motivated voter. Wisconsin has a closely divided electorate and went for Trump in 2016. But voters raged against the idea conservatives wanted to skew the April election by making voting a challenge in Democratic urban cores. The more liberal judge won convincingly. A New York Times analysis found huge margins for the victor among voters who successfully navigated the absentee system.
This leads to a larger point: It’s politically shortsighted to turn election access into a partisan debate. Standing against making it easier to vote surrenders the moral high ground of empowering the populace.
It also gives up a mathematical advantage. Elected leaders in Olympia deduced this not long ago. They granted the whole state postage-paid ballot-return envelopes only after the Metropolitan King County Council voted in 2018 to provide ballot postage in our most populous county. (Wisconsin seems likely to echo that sequence; Milwaukee recently opted to mail absentee applications to all city voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats.)
Of the 45 states that don’t now conduct elections by mail, most couldn’t shift fully over by fall even with robust federal support. But those states should open up absentee-ballot access — statewide — before the eleventh hour.
Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman said Wednesday she anticipates an unprecedented national demand to vote by mail this fall. In the 2016 presidential election, about 33 million of the nation’s more than 125 million votes were mailed. Wyman predicts “at least a doubling” this November, with 100 million mailed ballots possible nationally.
In Cowlitz County, which had more than 12,500 voters eligible for the April election, Auditor Carolyn Fundingsland said she’s “very nervous” about coming months. She recalled that registering voters lined her courthouse’s hallway in 2016. Like McGuire, she’s now scouting new quarters.
“What we’re doing right now to prepare and deal with COVID-19,” she said on Election Day, “won’t work this fall.”
It’s wise to be nervous now. It’s even wiser to be planning to prevent a chaotic November before we get a disputed election. The lessons of April show what can go wrong — or right.