Last week, I wrote about the Wisconsin primary, where the gerrymandered Republican legislature in conjunction with a conservative state supreme court conspired to force people to risk their health in order to vote in a special judicial election that the Democratic governor tried unsuccessfully to postpone. Republicans had hoped to suppress the vote in Democratic strongholds and tilt the playing field in their direction. So they gave voters a choice: turn out in the middle of a pandemic or forfeit your right to vote.
Their strategy backfired badly. When results were reported this week, the progressive candidate Jill Karofsky (Wisconsin judicial elections are officially nonpartisan) walloped the conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly by almost 11 points. To put this in context, Karofsky won by over 163,000 votes in a state that Donald Trump won by under 23,000 and where judicial elections are typically nail-biters. No one was expecting an outcome like this – especially Wisconsin Democrats. Their internal polls pointed to a close contest and the state party chair publicly anticipated defeat.
Turns out that people don’t like to be told they have to risk their health in order to vote and they knew exactly who to blame. Voters who decided at the last minute broke overwhelmingly for Karofsky.
While it is never wise to extrapolate about the results of a general election from a primary, the implications for Republican voter suppression efforts are profound. Congressional Democrats have been insisting on permitting national vote by mail in November to avoid making people vote in person. Republicans, fearing this would increase turnout among Democratic constituencies, have been fighting the idea at all costs. If Republicans get their way, November could look a lot like Wisconsin did last week.
However, ads are already running with brutal testimonials from angry Republican voters forced to endure the fear of getting sick in order to cast their ballots. This presents Republicans with a serious political problem. They are probably correct to believe they will lose in November if they can’t restrict the young and diverse emerging electorate. But the usual tired arguments about why people should not have safe and easy access to a ballot are now dramatically harder to defend as they are forced to explain to the country why they would want to put everyone through what happened in Wisconsin. They now know what a voter backlash looks like. While pandemic conditions are in effect they risk so angering the other side that efforts to force in-person voting will boomerang.
Donald Trump faces the same predicament. I wrote recently that the Trump campaign strategy has fallen apart in the wake of the pandemic. With Bernie Sanders and now Elizabeth Warren endorsing Joe Biden, Democrats are moving swiftly to unify. No one is talking about Hunter Biden. Trump can’t hold rallies to whip up his base. The economy is in freefall. And now efforts to disenfranchise the electorate are under assault. A remotely competent president could have preserved his political position by getting ahead of the crisis — and probably still could — but Trump is consumed by narcissistic rage that prevents him from letting the experts lead. Disenfranchising the emerging electorate is all he has left, and something he admits he needs to win. Now that too has been complicated by the pandemic.
After the Wisconsin results were announced, Karofsky said, “We can never have the type of voter suppression that we had last week, which resulted in people having to make an impossible choice between voting and staying healthy or alive.” We now know that voters will punish politicians who try. That is the lesson of Wisconsin, where last week democracy scored a sorely needed victory.