Be suspicious of reluctance to make it easier to vote safely and efficiently

Let’s begin by saying the men and women who staged Wisconsin’s April 7 election did a heroic job under circumstances over which they had little control.

The state’s politicians—led by Gov. Tony Evers for Democrats, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald for Republicans—managed to thoroughly botch the process. Right up to the last minute local officials across the state could not be sure if there would or would not be an election. The flexibility and efficiency of local officials and those who helped them was astonishing, but overall Wisconsin looked like a paralyzed, partisan, polarized mess.

Now the question is: With much bigger electoral challenges approaching, what’s next?

Wisconsin has a partisan primary set for Aug. 11 and, of course, the Nov. 3 general election.

Very little—correction: make that, nothing—has been heard from Madison about making those elections run smoother and safer than the April fiasco.

Now throw in a federal lawsuit filed last week against the Wisconsin Elections Commission. It asks a federal judge to issue an order requiring more polling places and more poll workers, sending every eligible voter an absentee ballot form, fully accessible in-person early voting stations, upgrading online voter registration and more.

Advocacy groups filing the suit claim—in keeping with the opinions of public health experts—the coronavirus will be unconquered by August or November, and better arrangements need to be in place so people can exercise their constitutional right to vote without fear for their lives.

This seems like a good question to ask, for starters. How did the April 7 mess impact voter participation?

In 2016’s April election—during the last presidential cycle—Wisconsin’s voter turnout was almost 50 percent, with 2.1 million people casting ballots.

In 2020’s April election the turnout was 34 percent and 1.5 million people voted.

Do the math. Fear of the coronavirus, coupled with the politically botched election process, severely depressed voter turnout. It’s undeniable.

In a less dysfunctional place government leaders, locally and in Madison, would not be satisfied with that result and, already, would be working together to get plans in place to maximize voter participation in healthy, efficient ways.

Yet the hostile partisan odor from Madison is as predictable as it is maddening.

The political argument turns on that tired old straw man that easing access to increase voter participation will result in runaway fraud. That’s a whopper of an exaggeration.

The conservative Heritage Foundation keeps track of proven, not fanciful, voter fraud. Let’s look at the foundation’s most recent figures for Wisconsin. In 2014 there were four fraud convictions. In 2015, it was three; 2016, two; and 2017, also two.

Next, let’s look at five states that use mail-in balloting. Colorado recorded one convicted fraud case in 2014; one in 2015; none in 2016; and three in 2017. Hawaii had just one, in 2016. Washington and Utah recorded none in any election year. Oregon’s last voter fraud conviction was in 2013.

Maybe the difference is whether Republicans or Democrats are in control. Let’s look at a big Republican state, Texas. In 2014, there were seven convicted fraudsters; 2015, five; 2016, two; 2017, five. Now a big Democrat state, California. In 2014, four convictions; 2015, two; 2016, two; and 2017, one.

Out of millions of votes cast. How could anybody not conclude that’s evidence of a horrific problem.

Just kidding. There is voter fraud but the scale is small, unless, of course, one thinks the very fact the numbers are small proves a vast conspiracy.

As long as humans are humans, dishonesty could be a factor and vigilance will be required. But democracy is not served by grossly exaggerating the problem to oppose modernizing and extending the voter franchise, especially when there’s a health emergency.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Every American ought to support maximizing voter participation. In a pandemic the rules should err on the side of encouraging the exercise of the franchise, as efficiently and safely and social-distanced as possible.

As for the lawsuit, it’s an embarrassment. At its core the lawsuit argues that Wisconsin is broken, politically, and elected officials can’t be trusted to do anything for the common good. They are too busy firing missiles from their partisan political silos.

With prospects for a negotiated, bipartisan solution from Madison absurdly dim, the courts may be the only hope for achieving a sensible, safe middle ground that helps people vote and raises turnout to where it belongs in this year of important choices.