Common Cause Calls for Emergency Congressional Hearings on Elections During COVID-19 Pandemic in Wake of Wisconsin Primary

Today, Common Cause called on Congress to hold emergency hearings to examine why Wisconsin voters were forced to risk their lives by standing in lines at polling places on April 7th during the COVID-19 pandemic when public gatherings were prohibited in the state. The letter to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Committee on House Administration also urged the committees to explore how other states are adjusting their elections to ensure that all voters can be counted during the current pandemic in both the primaries and the general election. The letter also emphasizes the need for Congress to provide additional election funding to states in its next stimulus bill to help ensure every American is able to cast their ballot in a safe and secure manner.

“Every American deserves to have their voice heard on election day, but voters should never be forced to risk their personal safety in order to cast a ballot,” said Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn. “The decision to hold an in-person election in Wisconsin yesterday was reckless and irresponsible, endangering the lives of tens of thousands of Wisconsinites and needlessly disenfranchising thousands more. Congress must investigate this matter thoroughly and look for ways to ensure something like what happened yesterday is not repeated in November or ever again.”

“The sight of residents in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Waukesha, and other cities standing in lines that extended blocks amidst a pandemic was both inspiring and heartbreaking because it never should have happened,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. “The refusal of the legislature to act to delay the vote and in fact going to court to keep the Governor from calling it off amidst a public health crisis is unconscionable. The people of Wisconsin deserve better and America deserves answers in order to ensure this is never allowed to happen again.”

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers attempted to halt the in-person election by executive order citing public safety but was blocked by a conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court after Republican legislators challenged the order. The ensuing problems with an in-person election amidst the public health crisis disproportionately affected communities of color. In Milwaukee, which is approximately 40% African American, only five polling paces were open instead of the 180 originally planned. Many voters were forced to stand in line for hours in order to cast their ballots. Some voters in these lines were even forced to endure hail during a thunderstorm because people were not allowed inside polling places due to social distancing requirements. Additionally, several hundred thousand of the 1.2 million Wisconsinites who applied for absentee ballots, never received them and were disenfranchised as a result.

The letter from Common Cause called on the committees to examine why Wisconsin failed to move its election to a later date or switch to prioritize vote-by-mail. Key questions that must be asked of Wisconsin’s elected officials include:

  • All other states with elections scheduled for April postponed their voting or shifted to predominantly vote-by-mail because of fears that holding an election in the midst of a pandemic could endanger poll workers and voters. During one of its emergency sessions, why didn’t the legislature vote to move the April 7th election to a later date or extended the return of absentee ballots until a later date to allow more voters to participate by mail?
  • If certain elected officials had to wear full head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE), which many Wisconsin voters presumably didn’t have access to, in order to vote, why wouldn’t the legislature move in-person voting to a later date to make the process safer for its residents?
  • Wisconsin’s failure to change its election date may lead to thousands of voters contracting coronavirus, hundreds of Wisconsinites dying, and hundreds of thousands of eligible voters being disenfranchised. Why didn’t you follow the advice and recommendations of public health experts, other states’ election officials, and many Wisconsin residents?
  • For voters requesting an absentee ballot, why wouldn’t the legislature waive the witness signature requirement, which meant that in order to vote absentee, a person who was quarantined had to be willing to expose oneself to the risk of COVID-19 and find a person willing to put themselves at risk as well?

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to our democracy, and Congress must immediately act to ensure no other states repeat Wisconsin’s appalling inaction. In order for all Americans to have their voices heard and votes counted, Congress must invest in our democracy this year by immediately funding states with at least $2 billion, or else we’ll face potentially catastrophic consequences–millions of disenfranchised voters.

To read the full letter, click here.