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Ground Game Analysis

Wisconsin will vote today in what might be the most unsafe election in US history. It could also be a prelude to the fall

Voters masked against coronavirus lined up at Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election Tuesday.
Voters masked against coronavirus lined up at Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election Tuesday.Morry Gash/Associated Press

Around the country there appears to be a consensus about what is and isn’t appropriate to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Professional sports games aren’t happening. Religious services are live-streamed. Schools are closed and businesses, if they can, are asking employees to work from home.

On Monday, Los Angeles County officials even went so far as to tell residents they shouldn’t go to the grocery store this week if they can at all avoid it. Yet also on Monday, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court told its state residents today’s election will go on as planned.

Never mind that Wisconsin has been under a statewide lockdown order for two weeks. Never mind that there are over 2,400 cases of coronavirus in Wisconsin and over 83 deaths reported there from the disease. Never mind that there is a real concern that there may not be enough poll workers showing up to even administer an election on Tuesday. (They are asking the National Guard to help). Never mind that after dragging his feet for weeks and being sued by his own Democratic Party, Governor Tony Evers announced Monday that the election would be delayed until June.

The state Supreme Court, an elected body dominated by Republicans, sided with state Republican leaders in saying that in-person voting should move forward today. (And don’t forget to hand over your identification card when doing so — surely not a chance of viral transmission there.)

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After all, besides a largely inconsequential Democratic presidential primary on the ballot is an important contest for, you guessed, the Wisconsin state Supreme Court. Republicans largely believe that a low turnout can benefit them; Democrats largely think the opposite. And here is proof to back up the feeling: in deeply Democratic Milwaukee, the typical 180 polling stations are reduced to just five, while more rural Republican areas aren’t facing as dramatic a disruption.

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In a moment when American citizens are urged to only leave their homes for “essential” activities, voter turnout could be abysmal. Wisconsin is now the only state to hold a statewide election in April while 15 states moved their elections to the summer, sensing danger.

Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin could be the most unsafe election in American history.

When midterm elections were held amid the Spanish Flu in 1918, the outbreak curve was on the way down. This time, in Wisconsin, the curve is still on the way up.

Of all places, of course this circumstance is playing out in Wisconsin. It is not only considered to be the most important swing state in 2020, but the state has a unique ability to be on the political forefront.

The progressive moment in the late 1800s started there, a model of bipartisan welfare reform started there, and the state has been at the forefront of a deep and aggressive partisan divide that might be more acute there than anywhere else in the country. This was particularly prominent during the era when Scott Walker served as governor and the legacy of those divisions helps explain why an election will go forward on Tuesday.

If there is one lesson to learn from Wisconsin, it is how to prevent this situation from happening in November around the country. No matter one’s political position, telling voters a day before the election that it is off and then hours later it is back on isn’t fair to anyone.

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But unless there are more dramatic steps taken around the country, it is entirely possible to see a patchwork of different voting procedures taking place state by state. One can see governors trying to delay an election by a week or two and then having a court overrule them.

In other words, what happens in Wisconsin today is either a harbinger for the future or a wake-up call.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.