Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his campaign never called for the Wisconsin primary to be postponed. In fact, they were silent as Republican judges on the state’s supreme court and the United States Supreme Court issued decisions that forced officials to hold the primary during a deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Yet, after voters risked their health on April 7, Biden appeared on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time,” and stated, “My gut is we shouldn’t have had the election in the first place, the in-person election,” as if that was his position all along.
Throughout the pandemic, Biden and his campaign repeated a conservative talking point while offering no leadership as Democrats at the state level scrambled to figure out whether to delay their primaries or jeopardize the safety of voters. They even promoted fake science.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers waited until April 6, the day before the primary, to issue an executive order banning in-person voting. About five hours later, conservative judges on the state’s supreme court overturned Evers’ order.
Conservative judges on the U.S. Supreme Court followed their ruling with a 5-4 decision that overturned a federal court, which gave voters until April 13 to return their absentee ballots. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of residents, did not receive their ballots by election day and were disenfranchised.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial Board immediately responded, “Tuesday’s election will be the most undemocratic in the state’s history, in addition to putting at risk everything we’ve gained from the past three weeks of staying home and keeping our distance.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos counted on the outbreak to suppress voter turnout and help conservative Judge Daniel keep his seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
As the editorial board noted, President Donald Trump previously complained about expanding mail-in voting after Democrats attempted to include a proposal in the third coronavirus response package. Trump said such a proposal would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The past twenty years of the Republican Party reflect a scorched earth politics hellbent on depriving citizens of their right to vote. They have explicitly targeted minorities, who they believe would support Democrats, and there are around 200,000 voters who will likely be purged in Wisconsin before November.
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden on April 5, “Wisconsin [is] now having its primary on Tuesday, your opponent [Bernie] Sanders said that should be put off and the governor [is] now joining that chorus as well. But it looks like it’s going to happen. Is that wise?”
Biden’s gut told him something totally different. “Well, look, I think they should follow the science, I—and, you know, what I’ve been hearing, I have been following it like you have, like everybody has, watching the court action, it’s still in court now. And—but I think whatever, whatever the science says is what we should do,” Biden answered.
It represented a lack of leadership during the crisis. The Democratic National Committee, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and multiple groups, which focus on get-out-the-vote efforts, backed postponement. They also demanded an extension of deadlines to give voters more time to request and mail absentee ballots. Biden did not clearly back their efforts.
Biden continued, “We cannot let this, we’ve never allowed any crisis from the Civil War straight through to the pandemic of ’17, all the way around, ’16, we have never, never let our democracy sake second fiddle, way they, we can both have a democracy, elections, and at the same time correct the public health.”
It was a wildly jumbled recitation of a conservative talking point that he has uttered throughout the coronavirus. In fact, he said it without any difficulty when he was on “Cuomo Prime Time.”
“We had an election in the middle of the Civil War. We had an election in the middle of pandemic flu back in the turn of the century. We’ve had an election in every major crisis,” Biden asserted.
While Republicans ensured an illegitimate election took place and the primary unfolded, Biden’s campaign ignored massive voter disenfranchisement in Wisconsin. They tweeted platitudes about the “spirit and resolve” of America that would guide people through the coronavirus crisis. They urged cash-strapped Americans to donate to Biden. They engaged in a tit-for-tat over the issue of whether Trump should wear a mask in public. And they shared Biden’s love for Fig Newtons and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The day before the primary, Andrea Palm, who heads the Wisconsin Health Department, stated, “In-person voting, by definition, inhibits our ability to physically distance, and the recent consolidation of polling locations in many parts of Wisconsin would result in mass gatherings.”
“In-person voting would, without question, accelerate the transmission of COVID-19 and increase the number of cases. And an increase in the number of cases in Wisconsin would result in more deaths.” (Palm was a senior counselor in the Health and Human Services Department during President Barack Obama’s administration.)
On April 2, the Democratic National Committee moved the party’s national convention in Milwaukee from July to August. That did not change Biden’s view. He still disregarded concerns that led numerous mayors and various other officials to believe voters would be endangered while at the same time giving his comments a pseudo-science veneer.
“I listen to the scientists. A convention, having tens of thousands of people in one arena, is very different than having people walk into a polling booth with accurate spacing to six to ten people, feet apart, one at a time and having machines scrubbed down,” Biden declared.
Evers initially took a “middle path,” where he did not back postponing the primary, but he was open to making changes to ensure fewer voters were disenfranchised. But even that effort was not unequivocally supported by Biden’s campaign.
“I mean, there’s a lot of things that can be done. That’s for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide,” Biden surmised.
The comments were part of a pattern of irresponsible statements, which have come from Biden’s campaign as he prioritizes clinching the Democratic Party’s nomination sooner rather than later over the lives of voters.
As the country shut down, Biden steadfastly backed in-person voting in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio on March 17.
Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders went on CNN after the presidential debate on March 15 and said, “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and folks have said it’s safe out there for Tuesday,” even though the CDC issued no statements about whether primaries posed a risk to the public’s health. She encouraged people to vote in the middle of an accelerating pandemic.
Once Biden had a commanding delegate lead after the March 17 primary results, Sanders hypocritically changed her tune. “Jake Tapper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta are basically pleading with Americans to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously. This is not a drill folks!”
Afraid the pandemic would keep voters at home, the Biden campaign cynically tweeted, “The right to vote is the most sacred American right there is. State election officials are working closely with public officials to hold safe elections.”
“If you are feeling healthy, not showing symptoms, and not at risk of being exposed to COVID-19, please vote on Tuesday,” the campaign urged.
The message was Trump-like in its disregard for public health risks. Everyone was at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
A person who does not show symptoms can still have the virus and infect someone. A person may feel healthy but be a carrier. This is why schools, restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses closed. It is why the CDC recommended bans on gatherings of people similar to the gatherings observed at polling places.
Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine found a way to overcome Democratic Party opposition to delaying the state’s primary. The state’s health department director designated polling places as “health emergency risks,” which effectively forced Democrats to support changing the date. Ohio subsequently developed a proposal that expanded access to mail-in voting for residents until in-person voting (which is currently scheduled for late April) could take place.
Fifteen states delayed their primaries until May or June, including Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. The science indicates that probably saved lives.
Unlike Ohio, Michigan held their primary on March 10. The state has four times as many coronavirus cases.
Dr. Robert Salata, an infectious disease expert in Cleveland, suggested “Michigan’s presidential primary March 10 could be a possible factor in the state’s elevated cases, because large gatherings of people make it easier for the disease to spread.”
The response of Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign contrasts sharply.
“It’s outrageous that the Republican legislative leaders and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin are willing to risk the health and safety of many thousands of Wisconsin voters tomorrow for their own political gain,” Sanders stated.
“Holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is dangerous, disregards the guidance of public health experts, and may very well prove deadly. For that reason, our campaign will not be engaged in any traditional [get-out-the-vote] efforts.”
Before Evers attempted to use his executive authority, Sanders declared, “People shouldn’t have to put their lives on the line to vote. Wisconsin should join the 15 states delaying elections, delay Tuesday’s vote, extend early voting, and work to send every voter a ballot by mail. While we wait for a decision, we urge our supporters to vote-by-mail.”
His campaign did not call for the postponement of any of the March 17 primaries, but they were reluctant to endorse in-person voting. “Going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision, and we respect whichever choice voters make.”
The coronavirus has not revealed how Biden is the leader the country needs during the next crisis. In fact, it has further exposed the opposite—that Biden and the people who surround him are craven political elites, who put their selfish interests before preserving public health and the rights of voters.
If that means being on the same side as Trump and Republicans, as they force voters to risk death or severe illness to do their civic duty, so be it.