On Monday evening, Wisconsin released the results from its controversial April 7th election, which took place amid poll closures and fear for the health and safety of voters during a pandemic. Joe Biden easily beat Bernie Sanders in the state’s Democratic Presidential primary. (Sanders, as was widely expected, suspended his campaign the day after the election.) The more surprising result was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where a progressive challenger, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_injury, defeated a Donald Trump-backed incumbent, Daniel Kelly, by more than ten percentage points. The court, which is expected to weigh in on at least one crucial voting-rights decision this year, is now split between four conservatives and three liberals.
Karofsky’s win was especially significant because, just a few days earlier, the state’s Supreme Court had played a central role in the conflict over whether to hold the election. On April 3rd, Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, called on the Republican state legislature to postpone the election. It refused, and Evers then invoked broad emergency powers to do so, but he was overruled by the state Supreme Court, and the United States Supreme Court blocked efforts to extend absentee voting. Many Democrats described Republicans’ insistence on holding the election as an effort at voter suppression. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Democratic stronghold, only around three per cent of polling stations were open, owing to limited numbers of poll workers. Across the state, voters complained that they never received absentee ballots that they had requested.
Shortly after the results were released, I spoke to Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. In the weeks leading up to the election, Wikler and the state Party had organized a massive absentee-ballot effort. Wikler, who until last year was the Washington director of MoveOn, often stresses the importance of delivering Wisconsin to the Democrats in this fall’s Presidential election. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Republican voter-suppression efforts may have backfired; whether Evers, who at first resisted efforts to postpone the election, made strategic errors; and what Joe Biden needs to do in order to beat Donald Trump in the state in November.
Do you view this result as a response to Republican efforts to suppress the vote?
I think the Republican attempts to suppress votes in Wisconsin backfired profoundly. There is a concept in psychology called “moral injury,” which refers to seeing something happen—or feeling like one failed to prevent something from happening—that is so fundamentally wrong that it tears at the fabric of your moral expectations of the world. And that describes how voters across Wisconsin felt as they watched the G.O.P. force us into an in-person election that every public-health official warned could cost lives. It reminds me of the height of the family-separation crisis and the backlash that followed, in 2018. And, like in 2018, people wanted to fight back with everything they could. For many voters, that meant finding a way to request and return an absentee ballot. For others, it meant braving the coronavirus and standing for hours in line, even in rain and hail, to cast a vote.
You tweeted that voters who “don’t like being suppressed, rose up.” But I have seen you, in interviews, cite voter suppression as the reason that Democrats have had trouble in Wisconsin. Is there any inconsistency there?
Voter-I.D. laws, restrictions on registering to vote, elimination of funded student governments that conduct campus outreach—all those voter-suppression tactics clearly drive down voter participation. Forcing an in-person election during a pandemic and suing all the way to the United States Supreme Court, in a last-ditch effort to prevent an obviously necessary measure to protect public health, had the kind of acute and vicious quality that invites a different kind of reaction.
Do you have some sense of how many of these absentee ballots were cast before the coronavirus really hit the state and the controversy erupted?
There are graphs of absentee ballots requested and returned day by day. The spike in absentee ballots absolutely took place after the coronavirus started to spread. The sea change happened as public fear of this pandemic began to explode.
Why did it take Governor Evers so long to call for a postponement? Was that an error?
Governor Evers issued the safer-at-home order on March 24th and called for ballots to be mailed to every Wisconsin voter three days later. By the next week, a federal judge declined to postpone the election itself, and said it was an action that had to be taken by the Governor and the state legislature, and the Governor called on the state legislature to act the following day. This has been a fast-moving public-health emergency, and the Governor is responsible for every aspect of keeping the public safe and has taken heat from Republicans each time he has pushed further to protect the public health. I am grateful he tried to do the right thing, and I am still furious that Republicans shut down efforts to protect voters, both through their power in the legislature and by suing to the highest courts in the state and country.
I understand that, but, into early April, the Governor was trying to keep the election date and said it was important to democracy that it happened. Republicans may have been unwilling to move it, but Democrats were also divided on it for a while.
Other states only had primary elections. In Wisconsin, our spring election included the Presidential primary but also three thousand eight hundred and thirty-one state and local elections. Wisconsin elections are also unusually complicated in the way they are administered. We have eighteen hundred and fifty-two municipal clerks who are responsible for sending out absentee ballots. If there had been a safe way to conduct in-person elections, that would have been far preferable. But it became increasingly clear that that wasn’t the case, and poll workers were dropping out in accelerating numbers, leading to more and more election-site closures as the date drew near.
So you are saying that is why it was harder to push the vote off?
Yes, exactly. In some places, the Party has the authority to change a primary or caucus. In Wisconsin, election laws are written in the statute, and the whole machinery of government revolves around them.
What are your biggest concerns about efforts to suppress the vote in November, and how are you planning to respond? Moreover, what voter issues are likely to come up before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which now is seen to be divided between four conservatives and three liberals?
If voter-suppression Republicans control the courts and the legislature, the most powerful method to protect the vote is organizing, and, as we approached the spring election, the Democratic Party in Wisconsin and an array of progressive groups organized with a greater volume and depth than we have ever seen in a spring election in our state. As we go toward the fall, we have to fight for the right to vote with everything we have got, which means negotiating in Congress and state legislatures across the country. It means bringing court cases wherever possible to protect the ballot, and it means exposing what Republicans are doing to the harsh light of public scrutiny. Republicans don’t like to admit that so much of their electoral strategy is built around suppressing the vote of people who disagree with them, and, when it is as naked and raw as what they just did in Wisconsin, it can undermine itself by outraging the public conscience.
One case that is almost certain to appear before the Supreme Court in Wisconsin is the voter-purge case. Before the April 7th election, it had been appealed all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but Dan Kelly recused himself, which led to a 3-3 deadlock after one Republican justice crossed over. Kelly indicated that he might un-recuse himself after the election, which is something judges almost never do—unless in the context of the hyper-partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court, apparently. He could, in theory, un-recuse himself and cast a tie-breaking vote before his term ends, as a lame duck. If he does that, though, it would have to happen before August, which means there would be enough time to reach out to all the voters who have been purged and help them reregister to vote before the November election.
So this is a case where people have been stricken from the rolls?
They haven’t yet. There is a list of two hundred and thirty-four thousand Wisconsin voters, maintained by a third-party registry, that a right-wing group has sought to use as the basis for a purge of Wisconsin’s voter rolls. Before the lawsuit, the election commission had determined that the list was too unreliable to use as the sole basis for removing people, and had planned to individually confirm whether people had moved before removing them. The lawsuit was brought in a very right-wing jurisdiction, and a conservative judge ordered that the voters be purged immediately, but the case was stayed on appeal, and will only move forward if the Wisconsin Supreme Court overrides the Court of Appeals.
Do you talk to Democratic Party officials in other states about voting access? What other states are you concerned about?
In the last couple of weeks, I have been pretty focussed on Wisconsin, but I am in regular touch with Democrats in a number of other battleground states, and all of us are working closely with Stacey Abrams’s extraordinary organization Fair Fight, and Fair Fight Action, which is supporting state Parties to build stronger voter-protection teams earlier than we have ever had.
Wisconsin is seen as probably the most likely tipping-point state in November. What does Joe Biden need to do to win it?
The key to winning Wisconsin—and I recognize that this is more difficult in the era of the coronavirus—is showing up and listening to people in communities across the state, in rural areas, in Latino and Native American and Hmong communities, in Milwaukee and Wausau and Madison, in suburbs and small and midsize cities alike. Winning candidates tend to be those who are most present and understand very specific issues that affect people. Wisconsin has an unusual number of ticket-splitters and swing voters and potential drop-off voters. There are hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who voted in 2012 who didn’t vote in 2016. And there are hundreds of thousands who voted in 2016 and didn’t vote in 2012. Because elections are so close, you basically have to do it all to win.
The way you described what you have to do to win the state—be there and be present and understand the issues—is not how I would describe the person who won Wisconsin in 2016.
Donald Trump in 2016 spoke powerfully about trade and the blight on manufacturing, and he promised to protect Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and he appealed to racial resentments that had been fanned for years by Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans. He was working hand in glove with Reince Priebus, the former chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. And the Republican Party, in partnership with the Koch network, had poured enormous amounts of money into organizing in the state, but, even after all that, Trump didn’t do very well in Wisconsin. He got fewer votes than Obama or Romney or Obama’s other campaign or George W. Bush or John Kerry. He did better than his opponent, but he did worse than five out of the past six Presidential campaigns in the state. [The exception was John McCain’s 2008 campaign against Obama.]
Why did Russ Feingold lose? He was an economic progressive with a clean image. He was the picture of what we are told is the type of Democrat who can appeal to middle America.
I was an intern for Russ Feingold in college, and he was a political role model of mine growing up, and he was the No. 1 target of groups that wanted to restore the primacy of money in American politics. I will leave it at that.
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.