In Congress, Senators Ron Wyden, of Oregon, and Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, have introduced legislation to fund voting by mail across the country. But the proposal’s prospects in Washington—with its own dysfunctional partisan politics—are uncertain at best. And, in any case, election administration in the United States isn’t a national affair but a state-by-state, county-by-county, and, in some ways, precinct-by-precinct operation. “The use of absentee balloting is key,” Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Election Meltdown,” said. “I worry about those places where it’s harder to vote by absentee.” Wendy Weiser, the vice-president for democracy at the Brennan Center, said that debates like the one taking place in Wisconsin “are good early-warning signs for November,” because delaying the general election is out of the question. “States have different levels of preparedness and different levels of infrastructure that allows them to pivot more or less quickly,” Weiser said. “But we need a lot of changes. So part of the delay-or-not-delay debate is a recognition of all the changes that need to be made.”
In Wisconsin, the debate about postponement wasn’t strictly a partisan fight, at least initially. Although the Wisconsin Democratic Party was among the groups that filed lawsuits to push for modifications to the upcoming election—and it successfully convinced a judge to push the voter-registration deadline to March 31st—the Party’s chairman, Ben Wikler, was not initially on board with the calls to postpone the election altogether. “Primary elections are one thing,” he said. “But Wisconsin has a general election scheduled. If local offices become vacant, if there’s a crisis of legitimacy for people who are wielding power, that is a profound problem.” Joe Zepecki, a top Democratic political operative in the state, told me that exercising the right to vote should be considered at least as essential as going out to get groceries. “This is as essential as it gets,” he said, adding that, in the age of Donald Trump, “I think we have to be really, really careful about doing things like moving election dates.” (On Wednesday night, after Judge Conley’s hearing, Wikler issued a statement saying that the state Party now endorsed the calls to postpone. “It became clear that the least worst option was to delay the election,” he told me.)
Eric Genrich, the Democratic mayor of Green Bay, has been among the most prominent voices calling for an election delay in the state. “What we’re headed toward is both going to be a logistical train wreck and a public-health travesty,” he said. In March, Green Bay filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to force changes, only to have the effort tossed out by a judge, who said that the city wasn’t allowed to sue the state. “We are not suggesting we should cancel this election,” Genrich said. “We’re just saying the way it’s administered needs to be modified. There just has not been any response that matches with the gravity of the situation.”
While Green Bay was mounting its lawsuit, activist groups and unions—including Souls to the Polls, a Milwaukee-based alliance of pastors whose founding president, Greg Lewis, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19—were mounting their own, demanding a range of remedial measures, from postponing the election to relaxing Wisconsin’s strict proof-of-residency requirements for voter registration. Their case was eventually consolidated with others and wound up before Judge Conley. Angela Lang, the executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, which is also a party in the lawsuit, told me that people are hearing conflicting messages right now. On the one hand, there’s the stay-at-home order. On the other hand, they’re being told to figure out how to vote. “We’re walking this balance of, yes, we want people to know the most up-to-date information about the election, but, at the same time, people are checked out,” Lang said. “The election is going to be on the back burner if you’re trying to feed your kids who are now home from school, or if you lost your job.”
In Milwaukee, as in other cities, early-voting sites have closed for safety reasons. Lang worries about the closure of those sites in neighborhoods with large black or Hispanic populations. She worries about people who can’t afford a computer or an Internet connection and about people who can’t navigate the technology necessary to request an absentee ballot or submit a photo I.D. online. And she worries about the confusion and information gaps that the coronavirus crisis has produced. The surge in absentee-ballot requests is a good thing, in terms of public health, but navigating the request process is easier for people with time and means. “I think we’re just going to end up turning out the super voters,” Lang said. “They’re privileged folks, they’re affluent folks. It’s possible to paint a picture of who will participate. And it’s possible to paint a picture of who will get left out.”
Albrecht, Milwaukee’s election administrator, shares Lang’s fears and is already seeing signs that they will be borne out. “I think that there are people in this city right now who don’t even know what it means to request an absentee ballot,” he said. In the run-up to the November election in 2016, Milwaukee sent out some twelve thousand absentee ballots, according to Albrecht. By early this week, for this upcoming election, his office had already issued seventy-two thousand. But requests for ballots were lagging “in those areas of the city with the highest concentration of people in poverty,” he said. “This is not what democracy looks like. Democracy should be a level playing field.” People in low-income neighborhoods who don’t vote absentee may not have the opportunity to vote easily in person on Election Day, either. For safety, and because of a lack of volunteers, Albrecht had been forced to consolidate polling places. In a normal election, the city has a hundred and eighty polling locations open; on Tuesday, Albrecht expects to have ten or fewer.
In Madison, Witzel-Behl is facing similar problems, but she’s also getting a lot of calls from elderly and homebound people having trouble navigating the absentee process. During the weekend, county clerks in Dane and Milwaukee Counties issued guidance advising municipal clerks to encourage people to declare themselves “confined” to their homes, which would make them exempt from some of the state’s voter-I.D. requirements. Republicans accused the clerks of breaking the law. But, for people who are home alone, Witzel-Behl said, just getting a witness signature on their ballot envelope is a burden, and, in any case, seeking out another person could be an infection risk. “The state has said, ‘Well, they could go to the grocery store, or the bank,’ ” she said. “But if they’re not able to leave their homes, that’s not an option.” Judge Conley’s ruling on Thursday loosened these restrictions somewhat, allowing absentee voters to skip the witness signature if they provide a statement saying that they tried and failed to safely get one.
Then there’s the poll-worker issue. On Tuesday, the state election commission released a document showing that Wisconsin has at least seven thousand fewer poll workers lined up for next Tuesday than it needs to properly conduct an election. More than a hundred of the state’s eighteen hundred and fifty election jurisdictions report not having enough staff to open even a single polling place. There are questions about how to maintain safe distances between people and how to keep facilities sanitized. In Madison, the vast majority of poll workers are over the age of sixty—putting them in the demographic most at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus. On election night, the city will have tens of thousands of absentee ballots to count, and each absentee has to be examined by two poll workers, work that is traditionally done in close quarters. “We are getting a lot of calls from poll workers saying, ‘How are you going to guarantee that I won’t get the coronavirus?’ ” Witzel-Behl said. “And I can’t make that guarantee.”