Wisconsin reveals the new Republican playbook: Voting in the time of COVID

By Jenifer Fernandez Ancona and Samantha Lee Robles

As the nation hunkers down under stay at home orders in preparation for one of the toughest weeks in the battle to contain the coronavirus — the GOP led SCOTUS told Wisconsinites their April primary would move forward with in-person voting. Even as the CDC urges Americans to “social distance” in order to dampen the risk of contamination, we are already witnessing long lines of people waiting to cast their votes — literally risking death to exercise their rights in a democracy.

The decision to keep the polls open became a tumultuous partisan fight between the Democratic governor and Republican state legislature. As governor, Tony Evers sought to postpone today’s election through an executive order, Republicans pushed back on multiple fronts, and eventually succeeded in blocking the order late Monday evening with the help of conservative-dominant courts, leaving the state with no choice but to hold elections. To learn more, we recommend listening to today’s NYT Daily podcast where reporter Astead Herndon talks through the background and history of today’s historic turn of events.

What we are seeing play out in Wisconsin is going to be the Republican playbook going forward, not only in the primaries yet to come where there may be high-stakes elections happening in historic and emerging battlegrounds in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and others, but in the general election in November as well.

We know that online voter registration and Vote At Home policies are going to be critical to keeping people safe while still preserving their democratic right to vote, assuming that the virus will still be very present in communities for the next several months without a readily available vaccine.

And yet, we also know that Republicans have taken the position that expanding access to voting will hurt their chances of winning, so we can expect them to use their power to stop it — regardless of public health concerns or the fact that people’s lives are at stake.

Trump himself said in an appearance on Fox & Friends, in response to the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that almost included new voter protection laws including an expansion of Vote At Home initiatives: “The things they [Democrats] had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

There is no doubt that Republicans will continue to undermine our democracy in order to maintain and build power both locally and nationally. The battle in Wisconsin clarifies the path forward. In light of recent state and Supreme Court decisions, voter protection organizations must be able to litigate the forthcoming legal challenges. As more legal challenges are set forth, Wisconsin’s late-night ruling also reminds us that organizations must be prepared to communicate updates about their elections swiftly with their constituents. Local organizations fighting for voter protections who have traditionally relied on field campaigns must also be able to adapt to this new reality, including access to digital response tools like SMS programs.

On a national level, Center for Secure and Modern Elections, Fair Fight, and Sojourners are fighting against voter suppression. On the local level groups in AZ (Arizona Advocacy Network), FL (SWAG), GA (New Georgia Project), NC ( Democracy North Carolina, Forward Justice) and TX (Texas Civil Rights Project) are also fighting to ensure their communities have access to fair elections.

Way to Win will be tracking closely with these groups and our other close funding partners on opportunities going forward to learn lessons coming out of Wisconsin to ensure groups have what they need heading into November.

What’s happening in Wisconsin also underscores the need to build more progressive power at the state level — which is a key part of our 2020 Plan to Win, and which has been part of our strategy since we began in 2017 that is bearing fruit in states like Virginia.

Powerbuilders and organizers are working to flip House and Senate chambers in many key states that will be important not only for controlling redistricting power in 2020 but also determining the kinds of voting reforms that will be necessary in the event of future pandemics or other disasters.

In Arizona, groups are within striking distance to flip the state House — breaking up the current Republican trifecta, one of 22 states with a Republican governing trifecta. In Texas, groups are working hard to hold 12 house seats that were won in 2018 and flip 9 more to secure a majority. In North Carolina, there are plans by powerbuilders to try to flip six seats in the state House and five in the state Senate. And in Pennsylvania, powerbuilders are working to flip 4 seats in the State Senate to control the chamber, and have plans to work on 9 seats to flip the House. In Florida, groups have a shot at flipping the State Senate with three seats, though the districts may be an uphill climb. In Georgia, they are trying to flip 16 seats in the state House and break up the supermajority in the State Senate.

Way to Win Action Fund is staying in close touch with these groups as they work to pivot their plans in light of COVID-19, and Way to Lead, our PAC with affiliated state PACs, will be supporting candidates in many of these key state-level races. Please get in touch with Elena Ruiz, Director of Advising, for help moving money into this important strategy.

We are witnessing before our eyes a massive attack on voting rights across the country and a threat to our democracy itself. At Way to Win we have been planning for this, but to overcome it, it’s going to take all of us.

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A homebase for progressive donors and organizers seeking a strategic approach to political funding that builds lasting power in states.