By Daniel Goldberg
Living during a pandemic, with all that entails, including self-quarantining and maintaining social distancing, is emotionally draining enough. Literally watching every day as our president and his administration repeatedly lie, fail to protect the health of the public, and care more about Facebook ratings than the American people only adds to one’s anxiety. And, then, events in Wisconsin this week put me over the top.
I grew up in Milwaukee. I went to Golda Meir Elementary School downtown across from Schlitz Brewery. I am a proud alumnus of the University of Wisconsin. And, although I now live in Maryland, I am writing this blog wearing my Giannis Antetokounmpo t-shirt. I still care deeply about my former state and home city, and the remarkable people who live there. I am in regular contact with friends and relatives there, including one friend, a nurse practitioner in Wauwatosa, who was exposed to the coronavirus at work and is home quarantined.
Since leaving Wisconsin, I worked for six years on Capitol Hill and three years at the Obama Justice Department. And, I now work at an organization, Alliance for Justice, fighting every day Trump’s efforts to take over the courts with ultraconservative zealots. But, I have to admit, watching my former home state this week, I am simply despondent. Has all the hard work that I’ve put into this fight alongside scores of others been for naught? Have the forces of those who would turn back the clock on our country — on civil rights, rights for women, LGBTQ Americans, protections for workers and consumers, and more — simply eroded our democracy and the rule of law so any attempt to challenge their entrenched minority rule is simply for not? Is there any remaining semblance of law, the principle I dedicated my life to studying and protecting?
It pains me to see the degradation of a state I grew up in and realize the fact that my friends and family and thousands of others literally had to risk their health to vote. I had to fight back tears Monday when the courts’ opinions came out. And, I had to fight back tears since Tuesday looking at videos and photos of brave people in line to vote.
In the last decade, we have seen Republicans stop at nothing to stay in power despite not representing a majority of the state or country. In Wisconsin, heightened partisan gerrymandering, attacks on unions and other constituencies that Republicans view as less likely to vote for them, voter ID and other tactics designed to suppress votes of African Americans and Latinos, and countless more underhanded tactics have erected insurmountable obstacles to the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” In 2018, Democrats received 190,000 more votes for the state assembly, but Republicans received 63 out of 99 seats. When Democrats did somehow win an election when Tony Evers narrowly beat Scott Walker to become governor, Republicans changed the laws in an effort to strip him of his power to act on behalf of the majority of the public that elected him.
All that pales, however, in comparison to what we have witnessed this week: Republicans’ utter contempt for the health of their fellow citizens and any notion of fair and free elections.
We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of Americans have died and hundreds of thousands are seriously ill and at severe risk from the novel coronavirus. Health officials are pleading with Americans to engage in social distancing to protect their families and communities. Charged with protecting the health and the rights of every Wisconsinite, Republican leaders flagrantly failed at both. They cynically refused to postpone an in-person election or in any way modify voting procedures to ensure voters had the opportunity to vote without putting their own or their communities’ health in jeopardy.
It is not lost on anyone that there was a key state supreme court race on the ballot, that Justice Daniel Kelly was endorsed by Trump and leading conservatives, and Republicans rely on low-turnout elections, especially when turnout is suppressed in heavily African-American Milwaukee. Republicans cannot claim to be ignorant of the impact on the pandemic has on access to voting. It was widely reported that there would not be not enough poll workers to staff the booths; in fact, Milwaukee polling locations were cut from 180 to five. According to the Wisconsin Election Commission,11,090 absentee ballots had been requested but not sent as of Monday — and 418,012 ballots requested had not yet been returned (many by people who certainly thought they had a week more to send them back).
Nor should anyone be surprised that partisans on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Trumpists on the U.S. Supreme Court twisted themselves in legal knots to advance the party that nominated them.
In Wisconsin, a majority of judges ignored the governor’s clear statutory authority to “issue such orders as he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property…” to deny Evers the ability to postpone the election. Even before yesterday’s decision, Republican-aligned judges on the court had repeatedly sided with Republicans and their allies. And, just three weeks ago, the same judges in yesterday’s majority even lent the weight of their office to “lash out” at the progressive candidate in the race — not exactly demonstrating they are a neutral apolitical body.
The Roberts-led U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention is even worse. Legal scholars have overwhelmingly condemned Monday’s decision prohibiting extending the time Wisconsin voters could return their absentee ballots (including in situations where voters have not even received their ballot by today). But the decision was just one of many outrageous ones handed down over the past few decades to make it harder for Americans to exercise their right to vote. In nearly 20 years’ worth of decisions, including Bush v. Gore, Shelby County v. Holder and Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, Republican-appointed justices have consistently made it easier for Republicans to win elections by suppressing the vote and undermining our democracy.
Worse yet, as Alliance for Justice has documented, Trump and Republicans continue to nominate and confirm scores of judges to the lower federal courts that have a history of fighting to disenfranchise others, that have advocated for racist gerrymandering, strongly supporting gutting the Voting Rights Act, and defended laws that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.
Make no mistake, Donald Trump and Republicans will do everything they can in November to use the pandemic and health crisis to cynically further erode our democracy and desperately cling to power. They are doing all they can rig the system to keep themselves in charge long after a majority has repudiated them. In fact, Trump and other Republican officials have already made clear they do not want to make it easy for people to vote in November given the health crisis we face. Trump recently said “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if voting access is expanded, claims he’s since tripled down on in the context of voting by mail. Georgia’ House speaker said easier absentee voting “would be devastating to Republicans.” And, when there are disputes over voting rights before the November elections, Republicans are certainly counting on their appointed judges to be on their side like they were Monday.
So, because of Republicans legislators and Republican judges, voters Tuesday had to choose between their health and exercising one of their most precious rights, the right to vote. It used to be “live free or die” — now, for some, it may be “live free and die.” And while it is heartening to see images of citizens in my home city standing in line for hours — many with masks — to vote, they never should’ve been in this position. These are brave patriots, unlike the cynical, cowardly, and dangerous Republicans in the statehouse and on our benches.
As I wrote above, I am despondent. But, looking at pictures from Milwaukee, I am reminded that all of us who have seen better times must remain vigilant. Every Democrat must put our democracy, voting rights, and who sits on our courts at the top of their agenda. While the citizens of Milwaukee and Wisconsin should be applauded for their bravery, no other American should be forced to put their lives at risk in order to vote.