An Anything But Normal Election

In the press release for today’s Marquette University Law School Poll, you’ll find the following sentence: “Given the uncertainty created by historically high levels of absentee voting and the unknown levels of election day turnout, these results should be viewed with more than the usual caution.”

Poll Director Charles Franklin is referring specifically to the polling numbers in the Democratic presidential primary. But his note of caution seems wise as we careen toward next Tuesday’s election.

Put another way, we don’t know what we don’t know about this spring election.

After reporting, writing, and talking about Wisconsin politics for 40 years, I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong.

This year’s spring election cycle has been overwhelmed by a modern-day pandemic.  Political contests  that would have been front and center have understandably taken a backseat to a life and death matter.  This will be anything but a normal election.  At least by Wisconsin standards.

Despite a record request for absentee ballots, turnout is likely to be down, perhaps significantly.  Because of COVID-19 concerns, Governor Evers is urging people to stay in their homes and cast their ballots by mail.  Thousands of poll workers—often older citizens—are choosing not to work next Tuesday  because they’re worried about getting sick.  As a result, some early voting locations in Milwaukee closed.  As few as 10 of the city’s usual 180 polling locations will be open next Tuesday. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the city of Waukesha—a city of 67,000 people—will operate only one of its 15 poll locations on Election Day. The governor has asked members of the Wisconsin National Guard to help out by acting as poll workers.

In-person voting on Tuesday will almost certainly show a steep drop-off, but the findings in the MU Law School survey raise an interesting question: Will Republican voters be more likely to go to the polls than Democratic voters? The poll shows Republican voters are somewhat less worried about getting the coronavirus. So far, typically red counties in Wisconsin have been less affected by the outbreak, perhaps making a trip to the polls seem less risky.

Adding to the uniqueness of this election is the likelihood that we may not know the winners of some races until after election day. That’s because of the enormous increase in absentee ballots, all of which will have to be counted.

When the final tally is done, there will be winners and losers.  Just like in a typical spring election. But while the winners will serve, the losers will wonder what might have happened in a more normal April election?

Overshadowed by the current health threat, lesser known candidates on the April ballot have had fewer opportunities to introduce themselves to potential voters, to break into the public consciousness.  Except for a Milwaukee County Executive debate aired on WISN-TV before the governor told residents to stay home, most head-to-head matchups in key local races were canceled because of health concerns.  That included two events scheduled for this week at Marquette University Law School: the only debate in the race for mayor of Milwaukee, and the final debate in the April election for Supreme Court justice. Both debates, part of a decade-long partnership with WISN-TV, would have been watched by thousands on live television.

In normal times, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and challenger State Senator Lena Taylor would be discussing the city’s fiscal, safety, housing, and racial issues.  Instead, Barrett finds himself in the news almost daily, talking about the city’s efforts to fight the coronavirus. The virus has made the race more challenging for Taylor. She has criticized the mayor’s handling of public health matters.  But as the incumbent, Barrett is in a leadership position at a time of crisis.  COVID-19 has dominated the final weeks of the contest in a way that couldn’t have been anticipated.  Barrett even had to self-quarantine.

The COVID-19 threat may have also deprived Wisconsin of having at least some significance in the nation’s Democratic presidential primary.  While Joe Biden had become the clear frontrunner in the nomination process, Wisconsin was a state Sen. Bernie Sanders had easily won in 2016.  It might have served as the Sanders campaign’s last, best chance to change momentum in the race.  On the other hand, a convincing win by Biden after a competitive primary battle might have effectively ended the race for the nomination.

But that scenario never played out.  Biden and Sanders had to pause their campaigns.  Wisconsin is no longer a “normal” primary election. The results matter less.  Sanders said this week his campaign will continue.

In turn, the lack of a robust primary battle in Wisconsin also has implications for the race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  A year ago, Democrats, buoyed by expectations of a competitive presidential primary, were optimistic about their chances of defeating Justice Daniel Kelly in the officially non-partisan race.  But the candidate Democrats prefer, Judge Jill Karofsky, may not get the turnout boost her campaign was hoping for. It’s also unclear how an election heavily reliant on absentee ballots will affect the race.

There are still some signs of normalcy in this election cycle.  We get campaign literature in the mail. We see TV ads that remind us that election day is near. Social media continues to churn.

Should the election have been moved?  The electorate seems split on that question.  In the latest MU Law Poll, 51% of voters said the date of the April 7 election should be moved, while 44% said it should be held as scheduled.

As of today, the election will be held April 7.  But while there will be winners and losers, it will be anything but normal.










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