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Wisconsin’s Voter Suppression Could Swing 2020 Election in Trump’s Favor

A lower-court decision awaiting review by the state’s Supreme Court would purge 129,000 predominantly Democratic voters.

A line to vote in Wisconsin's spring primary election wraps around for blocks on April 7, 2020, at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Things look bad for Donald Trump right now.

He is behind in the swing states and lagging Joe Biden by double digits in some national polls. His disapproval ratings are consistently in the mid-50s and half of the respondents in a recent Monmouth poll said they were “not at all likely” to vote for him. Recently, 4 in 5 voters said the U.S. is headed in the “wrong direction” under Trump, according to an Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. His failures to contain COVID-19 and his response to the uprising following George Floyd’s murder will be fresh in voters’ minds on Election Day. Improving jobs numbers can’t obscure the fact that we have the worst economy since the Great Depression. If events continue to break Biden’s way, Trump could lose in a landslide.

But a lot can change in three months and polls don’t dictate election results. On election eve, 2016, Hillary Clinton had comfortable leads in the “Blue Wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She lost all three. Mainstream media outlets attributed the polling fiasco to a surge of white working-class voters, but that was only part of the picture.

As revealed in the book Cyberwar, by co-founder Kathleen Hall Jamieson, voter suppression was central to Trump’s 2016 victory. Through the use of 50,000 Twitter accounts and other social media manipulation, Russian trolls worked to dissuade Black voters in swing states from supporting Clinton, possibly contributing to the lowest African American turnout in a presidential election since 2000. Trump’s digital campaign used similar tactics by targeting millions of persuadable voters on Facebook whose data had been mined (without their knowledge) by Cambridge Analytica.

Given the success of this strategy in 2016, and Trump’s unpopularity with a majority of the American public, the GOP is doubling down on vote suppression in 2020.

With new COVID-19 infections spiking, it’s clear that voting in person will be risky this November. People of color in urban districts will be especially vulnerable due to population density and long lines at polling places. A Brennan Center for Justice study showed that Latinx and Black voters waited 45-46 percent longer to cast their ballots during the 2018 midterms. The pandemic has made things even worse. In the June 9 Georgia primary, some Atlanta voters waited five hours to vote.

And Republican operatives want to keep it that way; as investigative journalist Greg Palast noted, “long lines are a feature, not a bug, of GOP election strategy.” Republicans plan to systematically send “poll watchers” into inner cities and tribal areas to harass and intimidate voters of color, and GOP lawyers are engaged in a $20 million effort to make it harder for Democrats to vote by filing lawsuits around the country in opposition to mail-in balloting.

Republicans at the state level have already done a lot of dirty work on Trump’s behalf, none more than the Wisconsin GOP. One of the crucial “Blue Wall” states Biden needs in order to win, Wisconsin has gone from being a purple-blue state to a highly-competitive swing state thanks to GOP-sponsored legislation passed on party-line votes and ratified by Republican judges.

In early April, after 16 states had postponed their primaries due to COVID-19, Wisconsin Republicans refused Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s proposal to mail ballots to all eligible voters and postpone the election until late May. Left with no other options, Evers signed an executive order postponing the election.

Sensing an opportunity to reduce turnout in the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee during a high-stakes state Supreme Court race, Republicans filed a lawsuit. The Republican majority on the state Supreme Court then overturned Evers’s executive order, forcing hundreds of thousands of citizens to put their health at risk by voting in person. This decision had an inordinate impact on Democrats in minority-majority Milwaukee, who waited hours to vote; Milwaukee, which usually had 180 polling stations, had just five for the pandemic primary.

Despite the chaos and public health risk this caused, Wisconsin Republicans have blocked an all-mail election for the presidential race. Voters who don’t use absentee ballots will be in the same predicament faced in April: vote and risk infection or stay home and lose your franchise. In a replay of the primary, a shortage of volunteer poll workers will lead to last-minute changes in voting precincts, which has been shown to reduce turnout by 2 percent.

Those who do vote will be subject to Wisconsin’s voter ID law, one of the most restrictive in the nation. Studies showed that anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents — disproportionately students and people of color — were disenfranchised by voter ID laws in the 2016 presidential election, which Trump won by 23,000 votes. Though national turnout rates were the second-highest they’d been in 50 years, Wisconsin had its lowest turnout since 2000. The benefits of vote suppression to the GOP were so obvious that Wisconsin’s then-attorney general, Republican Brad Schimel, implied in a 2018 radio interview that the GOP would have lost both the presidential and Senate races in 2016 if not for voter ID. Voter ID laws are guaranteed to disenfranchise thousands of Democratic voters again in 2020.

A recent court ruling created further barriers to the ballot. To help voters avoid waiting in line or missing work on Election Day, Wisconsin has long allowed people to vote up to six weeks before an election. This has been particularly beneficial to voters in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities — Madison and Milwaukee — where voting lines are the longest. After losing the governor’s race in 2018 due to high turnout in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin Republicans conducted a precedent-shattering extraordinary session in which they reduced the window for early voting from six weeks to two weeks. Voting rights activists sued to overturn the restrictions, but a federal appeals court of three Republican judges sided with the GOP, which is certain to increase lines on Election Day and reduce Democratic turnout.

Republicans may have yet another ace in the hole. A lower-court decision by a Republican judge now awaiting review by Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court would purge 129,000 voters from the voting rolls, predominantly Democrats in Madison and Milwaukee. Oral arguments aren’t scheduled to be heard until late September, but there is an outside chance that the GOP majority on the court will fast-track the decision to boost Trump. Were the purge to be enacted, the best-case scenario for the 129,000 Wisconsinites kicked off the voter rolls would be to re-register on Election Day and use provisional ballots, which are rejected at twice the rate of regular ballots.

Taken together, these insidious maneuvers put the Democrats at a big structural advantage. If Biden maintains his current lead for the next few months, he will likely win the state. But if the polls narrow, Biden could lose Wisconsin (and the election) due to structurally racist voter ID laws, precinct changes, hours-long lines in Democratic precincts on Election Day, limits on early voting, and maybe even a mass voter purge, exactly as Wisconsin Republicans intended.

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