Don't let Wisconsin become the Florida of the 2020 race for president
Don't let Wisconsin become the Florida of the 2020 race for president

Don't let Wisconsin become the Florida of the 2020 race for president

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Wisconsin’s confusing mess of a spring election — with changing rules, contradictory court rulings and delayed results — must never be repeated.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-run Legislature have more than six months until November to prepare for a high-turnout, hotly contested presidential vote. Wisconsin is expected to be one of a few states to decide the outcome.

Wisconsin must not become the Florida of the 2020 election. Florida, back in 2000, held the nation in disturbing suspense as it tried to decipher “hanging chads” and confusing “butterfly” ballots. After weeks of legal fights, a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court handed the White House to Republican George W. Bush.

With eerie similarity, local clerks in Wisconsin are now trying to determine which absentee ballots to count, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision the day before last week’s Wisconsin spring election. The high court ruled that absentee ballots must be “postmarked by election day, April 7,” but some ballots don’t have postmarks or don’t clearly indicate when the Postal Service received them. The partisan Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked over how to proceed.

The main race in Tuesday’s election was for a state Supreme Court seat. Yet thousands of local candidates also were on the ballot, seeking offices that become vacant this month. So democracy can’t be delayed for long. Election officials hope to announce the results Monday, with lawsuits almost certain to follow.

Wisconsin must prepare now to avoid a similar parade of partisan dysfunction when the stakes are much higher in November.

Gov. Evers and the Legislature had agreed for weeks that the April 7 election should proceed despite the coronavirus pandemic. They agreed that as many people as possible should vote using absentee ballots. More than 1 million mail-in ballots dramatically limited human contact at the polls.

But as the election drew near, Gov. Evers changed his mind, demanding the election be postponed. When the Legislature predictably objected, Evers tried to force a delay — even though he had conceded he didn’t have the authority to do so.

Evers was wishy-washy. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald were obstinate. As a result, Wisconsin drew national scorn for its electoral mess.

Yet in the absence of state leadership, many local officials performed well, including Madison Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. Her office recruited laid-off bartenders to sub as poll workers. Many older poll workers, who are more susceptible to the virus, didn’t want to risk catching COVID-19.

The National Guard pitched in. And most cities — though not Milwaukee — experienced relatively smooth and safe in-person voting.

The minority of voters who did show up at the polls responsibly stood 6 feet apart to avoid spreading the virus, and many wore masks. The polls were equipped with clear plastic dividers and hand sanitizer. Madison even allowed drive-up voting.

It was an inspiring commitment to democracy.

But state officials need to get their acts together. Many improvements are needed by fall, including broad yet secure access to absentee ballots and better technology. State officials should begin to negotiate the framework for a fair and open election now — long before the fall campaigns intensify.

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