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Muddling Through a Pandemic Election

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
April 11, 2020

On April 7th thousands of my fellow Wisconsinites were scheduled to head to the polls in an election like no other. As I started this column it seemed the election would occur despite local officials from across the state asking that the election be delayed, and despite Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ last-minute call for a special session to change the date. As I finished the column, news broke that the Governor had issued an order shutting down in-person voting…and just five hours later the Wisconsin Supreme court ordered that the election must occur. The election situation in Wisconsin is a daily case study of muddling through. It also highlights the challenge of preserving democracy during an unprecedented public health challenge.

To their credit, state and local officials have made a strong push for every citizen to vote absentee. But, as so many of us are finding as we transition to remote work and school, the logic of our workarounds is not always aligned with capacity. For example, my wife and I requested our ballots three weeks ago. They have not yet arrived. Statewide, about 45 percent of requested ballots have not been returned. It is anybody’s guess how many of these unreturned ballots ever arrived at the voter’s residence. There is also an equity issue at play. Voting absentee in Wisconsin requires uploading a picture of your government ID, and also providing a witness signature. Those without access to the appropriate technology, and those living alone during the state’s stay-at-home order, will be unable to vote absentee even if their ballot arrives.

Those pushing to hold the election present a continuity of government argument. In addition to the presidential primary, there is a state supreme court race, as well as judicial and municipal races on the ballot across Wisconsin. Admittedly, this argument holds some water with me; I am on the ballot for my local city council race. Pandemic or not, we need local government to continue to provide critical services. But, would delaying the election actually threaten continuity of government?

At the extreme we can point to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s use of the coronavirus crisis to solidify power as an example of how democracy can erode during a crisis. Cancelling elections for any reason does risk setting a bad precedent. What if Wisconsin were to delay the election until May and the crisis has not yet passed? Do we delay it again? Even if we are able to convert to a fully mail election, can the equity concerns caused by technology and social distancing be resolved in a way that results in a fair election? Further, local elections generally have low turn-out. Those that actually care will find a way to vote, right?

While the philosophical arguments for holding the election make some sense, the facts on the ground demonstrate the need to delay it. First, continuity of government can be maintained by simply extending terms in office until an election can safely and fairly be held. Second, concerns about the erosion of democracy lose traction when you consider most municipalities are already operating under emergency declarations where normal processes are suspended. Wisconsin is not Hungary, and the public health risk is a tangible one that exists today, not an existential threat lurking somewhere in the future. Third, forcing people to jeopardize their safety to exercise their right to vote is akin to taking away the right to vote for some. Fourth, the obstacles to a safe and fair election can be overcome. With time people can get their absentee ballots, and the barriers discussed earlier in the column can be solved. There are options here. I can present these logical arguments for delaying this election, but really it comes down to not overthinking it. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that we still do not fully understand. It is absurd to bring thousands of people into contact with one another for any reason.

I can only hope nobody is needlessly exposed to Covid-19 because of this decision. Post-election, I fear the election results themselves will be tainted. Any honest assessment of the election will have a caveat that not every person who wanted to vote was able to vote. The core tenet of equity, that everyone owns a share in our government, will be violated. In Public Administration we must always face situations as they exist, not as we wish them to exist. In this case the reality on the ground is a public health crisis that will only be mitigated by social distancing. As a candidate I do wish there was a way to for this election to be held safely…but that does not appear to be the reality.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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