Ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, pundits and officials see tensions rising in Wisconsin and across the country.
Armed poll watchers monitor absentee drop-off sites in Arizona. Republican Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, who will not say whether he will accept the election results, has promised that if he has control of the state’s election administration levers, the party would never lose another election. Building on the Republican Party’s efforts to recruit an unprecedented number of partisan observers, the Republican National Committee sued and won in Green Bay seeking to give these observers greater access to the city’s early voting process.
In the two years since the 2020 election, Wisconsin‘s electoral system has been repeatedly pushed and pushed, investigated, attacked and sued. Now even Republicans who have never conceded President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory are voting midterm as voters choose state governor, U.S. senator and decide whether Republicans should secure a non-veto supermajority in the Legislative Assembly.
Nearly 600,000 people have already voted by mail, according to Wisconsin Election Commission data, but hundreds of thousands more will head to the polls on Tuesday. Election experts say that despite fears of interference or intimidation from right-wing extremists, voting will be safe and secure.
“Tensions are high at the moment, but we don’t see anything to worry about,” Mel Barnes, a lawyer at progressive election law firm Law Forward, wrote in an email to the reviewer. “We also know that local media has a huge impact on how people view the election. News stories that fuel and amplify the potential for conflict are not helpful to voters. Local media have a lot of power to escalate or de-escalate what is happening. Right-wing national forces try to amplify this conflict (see the Green Bay trial) because they know it benefits them when voters stay home.
WEC data shows that as of Thursday, more than 223,000 people have already voted by mail in person in Wisconsin. David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said at a Thursday press briefing that staying home for fear of violence is exactly what extremists want.
“There would be nothing extremists and deniers would like more than voters being afraid of whether they should vote, and they shouldn’t,” Becker said. “Voters are showing you can vote safely in this election.”
On the theory that former President Donald Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election results failed due to a failure to gather enough hard evidence that the election was stolen, the Republican Party has attempted to recruit and train poll workers across the state. Encouraged to take notes and report them up the ladder — including to places like an “election integrity” website created by incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.
Many complaints that Republicans raised following the 2020 election about the voting process have been dismissed or no longer apply. State election rules, for example, no longer allow the use of mail-in ballot boxes or a local clerk to add missing witness address information to a ballot certification. The changes the WEC made to the rules for voting in nursing homes in 2020 no longer apply as the COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in effect.
“Following grievances Trump supporters have raised after the 2020 election they believe they don’t have the ability to see the voting process and invalid absentee ballots – say those who lack information – might be accepted for counting,” UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden says. “This distrust exists despite several court rulings that have eliminated the practices that Trump supporters were most vocal about two years ago.”
Aware of the possibility, local election officials said they had contingency plans for how to deal with unruly observers. Burden says that despite those plans, poll watchers could still cause delays and disruptions.
“Election observers are welcome at polls and election offices across Wisconsin,” he says. “Local clerks are usually eager to invite people with questions to follow the voting process closely. However, aggressive election observers may cause disruptions at polling stations by demanding additional access or challenging voters. This could cause delays in the voting process and contribute to longer wait times.
After the polls close on Tuesday, it will be some time before the results come in. In the previous two statewide elections, results that arrived late from Milwaukee helped influence the final tally. The city, which uses a central location to count all of its votes, will not have the results by 8:01 p.m.
“The public was told ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections that the city’s mail-in vote results would be added late at night, so that shouldn’t have been a surprise,” Burden said. “It was nevertheless treated with suspicion in 2018 and turned into a conspiracy theory in 2020.”
As of Thursday, more than 57,000 mail-in ballots had been requested in Milwaukee and nearly 47,000 had been returned. Although less so than in 2020, when mail-in voting exploded in popularity due to the pandemic, it still takes a long time to process all those ballots – especially since they can’t even be opened. before the opening of polling stations on polling day. Barnes says state election officials must be allowed to count votes without being rushed or threatened.
“What’s most important is that we make sure that trusted election officials across the state have the space to count every vote,” she says. “We know from experience in Wisconsin that it can take late nights, even days, and that’s what it takes to make sure all of our voices are heard. Voters decide elections.
Even after the votes were counted and the results released, 2020 showed that it was not necessarily the end. Johnson, like Michels, dithered over whether or not he would accept the results of an election defeat. Becker says he fears this will happen nationwide.
“I’m a little concerned though about what’s going to happen after Election Day and we’re already seeing hardline Holocaust deniers, perhaps candidates who think they might lose, questioning the ballot count, wondering how long it might take to count the ballots,” says Becker.
Polling stations open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and remain open until 8 p.m.
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