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Journalist on Wisconsin Election: Republicans Are Letting People Die in Order to Hang On to Power

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Lines stretching city blocks, hours-long waits and polling officials in hazmat suits. That’s the scene voters in Wisconsin encountered as they braved the polls Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite growing outcry about the risks to public health and safety that in-person voting would pose, on Monday the state Supreme Court blocked Democratic Governor Tony Evers’s ruling to delay the election until June. At least 92 people in Wisconsin have died from exposure to COVID-19. In Milwaukee — the most diverse city in Wisconsin — the number of polling stations went from 180 to five. We speak with Jesse Wegman, longtime journalist and member of The New York Times editorial board.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Lines stretching city blocks, hours-long waits and polling officials in hazmat suits. That’s the scene voters in Wisconsin reported as they headed to the polls Tuesday amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Despite growing outcry about the risks to public health and safety that in-person voting would pose, on Monday the Wisconsin state Supreme Court blocked Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ ruling to delay the election 'til June. This came after the Republican state Legislature refused to consider delaying the election or sending all voters mail-in ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Wisconsin Republicans Monday in a 5-to-4 vote against extending the absentee ballot deadline to next week. The result is what Wisconsin's largest newspaper called “the most undemocratic” election “in the state’s history.”

This is Wisconsin’s Republican state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos at a polling place in Burlington, Wisconsin. You just have to envision this. Vos is wearing a surgical mask, gloves and hospital gown — more personal protective equipment than many healthcare workers have been given access to.

ASSEMBLY SPEAKER ROBIN VOS: Everybody is here safe. They have very minimal exposure. Actually, there’s less exposure here than you would get if you went to the grocery store or you went to Walmart or you did any of the many things we have to do to live in the state of Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: At least 92 people in Wisconsin have died from COVID-19. In Milwaukee, the most diverse city in Wisconsin, the number of polling stations went from 180 to five. Many poll workers are elderly and weren’t able to open those other polling places.

Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes said, quote, “People died fighting for the right to vote, and now people might die if they vote. Today’s election in Wisconsin is far from free and fair — politicians are silencing the voices of Black and Brown people or putting us in harm’s way for their own partisan gain,” he said.

Barnes and other critics say Republicans forced the election due to a critical state Supreme Court race between conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly and a liberal challenger, Jill Karofsky. President Trump has endorsed Kelly.

This comes as other states consider whether or not to move upcoming elections to be entirely vote by mail. President Trump himself requested an absentee ballot to vote in Florida’s March primary, but he attacked mail-in voting when questioned by a reporter on Tuesday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because there are cheaters. They go and collect them. They’re fraudulent in many cases.

REPORTER: You voted by mail —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s corrupt.

REPORTER: — in Florida’s election last month, didn’t you?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sure, I could vote by mail for the —

REPORTER: How do you reconcile that?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on Wisconsin and national efforts to shift towards a vote-by-mail system, we’re joined by Jesse Wegman, longtime journalist, member of The New York Times editorial board, where he writes about legal developments in the Supreme Court. His new book is titled Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College.

Jesse, welcome to Democracy Now!

JESSE WEGMAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: — as you join us from your home in Massachusetts, where you are staying safe with your family. Can you talk about this calamity that took place in Wisconsin?

JESSE WEGMAN: Sure. I mean, this is really just the culmination of what we’ve seen over the last several years, and really several decades, coming from the Republican Party, which is an effort to win and then to hold onto power by any means necessary. And I really think — you know, I’ve often asked myself, you know, how far would they go to do this. And I don’t think I would have come up with the answer “letting people die in order to hang onto power,” but that’s literally what we’re seeing happen right now in Wisconsin.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jesse Wegman, in terms of the sheer number of polling places eliminated in Milwaukee, I’m thinking just — what about people who don’t have cars and have to travel long distances across the city just to be able to vote? How did this pass legal muster?

JESSE WEGMAN: I mean, this is purely in the hands of the Legislature. You know, they had the power to put this on hold. I think there was a debate a few days ago, when Governor Evers finally tried to stop all in-person voting, and he invoked both Wisconsin law and Wisconsin state constitutional provisions. Obviously, that was overturned by the state Supreme Court. And I’m not familiar enough with Wisconsin law to know who had the upper hand on that one, but, you know, it is — I think Governor Evers bears some of the responsibility here for not much earlier making the call for a delayed election. You know, Wisconsin is the only state that had an election scheduled these weeks right now that insisted on holding it on schedule. All the other states have postponed and/or shifted to all-mail balloting. That just seems like an obvious and sensible way to proceed. And the fact that Wisconsin refused to do that — and really gave no excuse for it, right? The explanations that the lawmakers gave, the Republicans gave, were, essentially, “We can do this. It’s not a big deal. We need to hold the election as planned.” No other state felt the need to do that. I think they should be thinking about their rationale.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a voter in Wisconsin standing in one of these incredibly long lines outside a polling place. You can see her wearing a mask and gloves.

WISCONSIN VOTER: This is just so wrong. This election should have been called off. You know, they’re telling us to stay in the house and, you know, stand six feet from each other. But then, one of the most important times, they’re forcing us to come out here, in a group. Stop playing politics with our lives. You know, that’s what I’m feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is just an astounding story, as Juan just was asking you about Milwaukee, when you have this massively disproportionate death toll around the country of African Americans, in one of the blackest and brownest areas of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, five of 180 polling places alone, so you’ve got these incredibly long lines. There’s one picture of a person holding a sign in one of these lines, you know, in mask, in gloves, which says, “This is ridiculous.” And yet you have the speaker of the house, Assembly, in full hospital gear, right? You’ve got that blue long robe. He’s got plastic gloves. He’s got the mask. And he’s telling voters, “It’s perfectly safe to vote here.” Now, tell us what is the inspiration, Jesse. What was the motivation, the state Supreme Court justice who was running for reelection, why they wanted this race to go forward?

JESSE WEGMAN: Well, you know, the reason that that state Supreme Court seat is so important is, you know, the state Supreme Court has acted as a backstop for a lot of the Republican policies that Wisconsin has instituted in the last decade. It now has a conservative majority, a 5-to-2 conservative majority, so it looks like they’re safe. But, in fact, if this justice were to lose — and he very possibly could lose if you held a fair and free election — it would be a 4-to-3 split, and then, within the next couple of years, that could flip, and Democratic-aligned justices could take control of the court. Republican lawmakers clearly don’t want that to happen at any cost.

And one of the most immediate reasons for that is this upcoming case on a voter purge, which was ordered by a Wisconsin judge last December. They purged more than 200,000 Wisconsinites from the rolls. And that is now being challenged in court. But, you know, Wisconsin is one of the battleground states. It may be the decisive state in this year’s presidential election. So, exactly who comes out to vote is extremely important there, right? President Trump won the state by roughly 20,000 votes in 2016. Two hundred thousand people being struck from the rolls could very easily alter the outcome in Wisconsin and possibly in the nation. So, Republicans there are well aware of how important this is, and Donald Trump is, too, which is why he weighed in on this race. I just think it’s — I agree it’s ridiculous, as the voter said, is very much understating it.

AMY GOODMAN: And the lower the vote count, the more chance he would win?

JESSE WEGMAN: I think there’s no question about that. We already see that in the results coming in, where the absentee ballots are coming — were both requested by and coming in from parts of the state that are wealthier, whiter, more conservative. That’s standard. I mean, that’s just common practice, right? People with more money and more time are going to be more likely to vote, have the opportunities to vote, and vote absentee if they need to. Many of the last-minute requests that came in for absentee ballots were coming from the less well-off areas of the state, like Milwaukee.

I’ll just say — sorry — just one point here. The legal fight that’s going through the Wisconsin courts right now is about this purge, this purge off the rolls, a sort of formal election purge of 200,000 voters. We’re watching right now a purge of Wisconsin voters. They got their purge yesterday by keeping so many voters home, by forcing other voters to show up who now may end up getting sick and dying, literally. And, you know, they knew exactly that’s what was going to happen. They’re happy for that to happen. They won’t say it out loud, but they come very close.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jesse Wegman, the implications of this for the upcoming November elections? Because no one expects the coronavirus crisis to be over by then, although, certainly, hopefully, it will be abated to some degree, but certainly people’s actions and day-to-day activities will be changed considerably into the future. What’s your sense of the impact on the November elections, as we move into that period?

JESSE WEGMAN: It all depends on how prepared states are going to be, and how much money they have for those preparations, to hold an election that looks nothing like what Wisconsin just did yesterday. And that means basically giving all registered voters the opportunity to vote absentee, to vote by mail. It’s been clear now for weeks that that was going to be necessary. And it still is going to be necessary.

And the Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that roughly $2 billion would be required in funding from the federal government in order to allow all of the states to ramp up their preparations to provide mail ballots to all of their registered voters. That’s a drop in the bucket. It’s essentially nothing. The last coronavirus stimulus package was what? Almost $2 trillion. This is, you know, one-one-thousandth of that. It’s hard to imagine how that wouldn’t be spent immediately to safeguard American democracy. Four hundred million dollars was allocated to election protection and election preparation measures in the last package, so that was one-fifth of what was needed.

If they don’t provide the extra money, I think we are much more likely to see what happened in Wisconsin yesterday play out in many states around the country where lawmakers either don’t have the funds or refuse to implement the obvious needed protections in order to let people vote and stay safe and healthy at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Wegman, if —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of having the president already on record saying he’s opposed to mail-in ballots?

JESSE WEGMAN: Look, I mean, he’s not going to — turning to Donald Trump for anything related to protecting American democracy is not going to get us anywhere. The only thing, you know, that could — the only way he can play a role right now is if Congress will pass a new stimulus measure that includes adequate funding. He absolutely needs to sign it. You know, if they both — if both houses pass it and he refuses to sign it, then we can have a conversation, and we know exactly what he’s refusing to do. But beyond that, states are going to have to do what they can and ignore the president of the United States. I hate to say it, but that’s really the only thing they could do at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: The most progressive ideas on voting right now to increase voter participation, you have Mitch McConnell calling a proposal to make Election Day a holiday, which is the case in so many different states, or on a weekend, a “power grab” by Democrats. What are the ways that increase voting, that could be put in place by November, in addition to mail-in voting around the country?

JESSE WEGMAN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And the states that are already doing it with enormous success?

JESSE WEGMAN: Yep. Early voting is probably the biggest. You would need at least a couple weeks everywhere. The places that do it demonstrate much higher turnout. People are happy with it. It gives people more flexibility. I think, actually, early voting is even better than a holiday, because even if you made Election Day a holiday, a lot of people couldn’t come to the polls. A lot of people have to work on holidays. Early voting gives people a wide range of options to show up at the polls when they are able to and cast a ballot.

Obviously, the absentee ballot. You know, printing out more mail ballots, mailing them out, making sure that voters get them, making sure that they’re returned, making sure that people whose signatures don’t match can have a chance to go in and correct that and cast a provisional ballot, if necessary — all of those things have to be done.

And obviously, expanding registration, so making registration easier, online registration, same-day registration.

These aren’t like pie-in-the-sky ideas. States are doing these right now. You know, even let’s talk about mail balloting. Five states do all or virtually all of their voting by mail. Right? The military does all of its voting by mail. Twenty-five percent of Americans voted by mail in 2016. We had no problems with it. Donald Trump votes by mail. This is a very sensible way of conducting an election, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Jesse Wegman, for joining us, longtime journalist, member of The New York Times editorial board. His new book is titled Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College. We’ll have to have him back on to talk about abolishing the Electoral College.

But right now, when we come back, we go to Louisiana, which is facing one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus. African Americans account for 70% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, more than 65% of people in its jails and prisons. We will be speaking with a man who has spent more time in solitary confinement than anyone in the United States. Albert Woodfox will be our guest. He spent more than 44 years in solitary. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Please Don’t Bury Me” by John Prine. The Grammy-winning member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, John Prine, died Tuesday of COVID-19 in a Nashville hospital. He was 73 years old.

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