Wisconsin: Electoral Politics Gone Lethal

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything more depressing in United States political history than last Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin. Following days of legal wrangling and in cold-blooded defiance of the grim warnings of public health experts, Wisconsin held an in-person vote in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

During the previous month, numerous states had postponed in-person voting in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Not Wisconsin. It sent hundreds of thousands of thousands of voters to polling places with gloves, wipes, sanitizer, and dread. The outcome was an unsafe election whose results are certain to be contested and widely seen as inauthentic. We’ll never know how many people were infected [1] as a result.

Why did this monumentally idiotic and arguably criminal vote occur? Why wasn’t the election re-scheduled and switched over to mail-in voting, as Wisconsin’s Democratic governor Tony Evers tried to make happen? Evers’ decision to postpone the election until June was challenged by Wisconsin’s right-wing Republican legislature and overturned by the state’s majority right-wing state supreme court and the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court.

The Republicans smelled partisan advantage in retaining in-person voting on the originally scheduled date. Going ahead with the prior procedure in place, with no adjustment for COVID-19, would, Republicans knew, reduce voter turnout most particularly in Milwaukee’s Democratic-voting Black neighborhoods, where the virus is exacting its greatest toll. The disease was expected to have a less depressive impact on turnout in the state’s whiter and more rural, predominantly Republican areas. The right-wing state legislature and the two supreme courts smelled blood in the water. They could not resist the political argument for making Wisconsinites risk their lives to cast their ballots.

What was at stake for the Republicans? While the election featured a technically irrelevant presidential primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, the main event was a state supreme court contest pitting a right-wing incumbent, Daniel Kelly, against a liberal challenger. The winner will cast a deciding vote in a case before Wisconsin’s high court in which the Republican state legislature is seeking to purge 200,000 disproportionately Black and Democratic people from the state’s voting rolls prior to the November elections. The purge is meant to help the demented oligarch Donald Trump win a closely divided state (Wisconsin) next fall (assuming Trump doesn’t cancel the 2020 elections).

Consistent with the right’s plan, predominantly Democratic Milwaukee had to close 170 voting locations, leaving just 5 places where city residents could mark ballots last Tuesday. Five polling places for a city of 592,000 people! How insane was that? It was a logistical nightmare with long lines and prolonged potential virus exposure for voters and poll workers, some of whom donned make-shift hazmat garb!

I’m not sure which was more disheartening: the lethal cynicism of Wisconsin’s Republican Party and its high judicial allies or the determination of tens of thousands of registered Democrats to risk their lives and those of others in order to legitimize a criminally hazardous election.

The best response would have been for non-Republicans to have boycotted the election, helping expose it as a cruel and deadly farce.

Even without pandemics and voter suppression, the U.S. elections and party system is a monument to plutocratic fake-democracy in a nation where concentrated wealth regularly trumps majority opinion on nearly every key social and policy issue. The nation’s savagely time-staggered big money-big media major party electoral extravaganzas are powerful means for the political marginalization of the populace under the cloak of popular self-rule.

There is a strong case for non-voting even when U.S. elections are held under the best of circumstances. There was no case for participating in last Tuesday’s criminal shadow election in Wisconsin.

Religious faith in bourgeois electoral politics can get voters killed in more ways than one.


1) According to a writer with The Hill: “the health consequences of having an election during the peak of the epidemic can be estimated. As of Tuesday, 94 people had died of coronavirus in Wisconsin. Assuming a fatality rate of 1 percent, that corresponds to approximately 10,000 infected people statewide. If 300,000 Wisconsinites stood in line to vote out of a population of nearly 6 million, we might expect that 500 people positive for COVID-19 — at any stage from newly-infected to recovered — were standing in line on Tuesday. Runaway epidemics double in 3 days, and I calculate that without any social distancing precautions, 500 infected people could cause about 130 new infections in the course of one unprotected day.” All pretty much amateurish guesswork but damning nonetheless.


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).