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The Challenges, And The Politics, Of Suddenly Switching To Voting By Mail


More than 20 states have postponed elections due to the coronavirus pandemic. But after a last-minute back-and-forth, Wisconsin is going ahead with its primary tomorrow, despite objections from voting rights groups and even the state's governor. Voters will now need to turn in even their absentee ballots by tomorrow. It's all part of a growing political fight around voting in this health crisis. NPR's Miles Parks covers voting for us and is with us now with the latest update.

Hi, Miles.


SHAPIRO: You and I were talking just hours ago about the governor's decision to delay Wisconsin's election with an executive order. Now it is back on. What happened?

PARKS: Right, so the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, made an executive order earlier today to delay the primary after voting rights groups and other Democrats across the country have been pressuring him to do that for days. He said in-person voting just could not take place safely, but it was always clear this was going to be a flimsy legal case. Even just a few days ago, Evers said to reporters that Wisconsin state law didn't allow him to change the date. So the Republican leaders in the legislature immediately announced after his announcement that they were suing to challenge the delay, and the state Supreme Court, which has a majority-conservative tilt, sided with the Republicans, so there will be an election tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: And while that was all happening at the state level, the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding a case about absentee voting in Wisconsin and just weighed in. What did the justices say?

PARKS: Right, so once it was determined the election would go forward tomorrow in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court - the U.S. Supreme Court needed to rule on the question of when voters could return their absentee ballots. A lower court had ruled for more leniency because of the pandemic, saying that voters could mail their ballots after Election Day just so long as their election supervisors received them by April 13. The Supreme Court nixed that down traditional conservative-liberal lines and ruled that voters needed to have their ballots postmarked by tomorrow if they want them to count. They can still be received over the next couple days up until next Monday, but they need to have them in the mail by tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: So we're now just hours until polls are supposed to open, and there is not only a pandemic. There's also this chaos and uncertainty about whether or not the election was even going to happen. What does all of this mean for turnout?

PARKS: At this point, it's really hard to tell. I think it's fair to say it will probably be low. Even taking into account the historic number of absentee ballots that are expected to be cast in Wisconsin, just minutes after the court ruled that there was going to be an election tomorrow, the chair of the Democratic Party released a statement saying that they were not going to be encouraging voters to go out and vote tomorrow. This is the chair of the party.


PARKS: Between that, the confusion about whether an election is happening, you've got this - the health guidance that just says, you should stay at home; you should be social distancing. It's really hard to imagine a lot of people voting, especially when the Democratic primary is, you know, close to being locked up - Joe Biden, obviously, with a pretty commanding lead.

SHAPIRO: So how does this fight in Wisconsin presage what might happen in November? I mean, as we said, more than 20 states postponed their primary elections. Ohio had some chaos just before its primary. What does Wisconsin tell us about the states that have yet to vote?

PARKS: I think there are a couple takeaways here. The first is that any illusion of some sort of bipartisan coming-together around elections and voting has been completely shattered. You think about President Trump saying over the last week that expanding vote by mail was a way for Democrats to rig elections, despite the health risks of gathering in person - this is really still a partisan-sensitive subject, as it has been and become over the last decade. Another takeaway is that there are going to be a lot of lawsuits this year. The courts are going to play a big role in figuring out how, when, where we vote. And lastly, it's just hard not to think that the first two things I just mentioned make it so voters lose. Experts really worry about turnout, how - the harder you make it for people to understand the way voting works, the less people are going to do it.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Miles parks.

Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.