Originally Published: US News & World Report | April 7, 2020
IT MAY BE A SIGN OF things to come: Wisconsin voters went to the polls Tuesday in what could be a pivotal race for the Democratic presidential nomination and during a time of national crisis. And they won’t know who won for almost a week.
Vice President Joe Biden was leading heavily in opinion polls in the Badger State in his battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the nomination. A recent Marquette Law School survey showed that Biden had 62% support among Democratic voters, with Sanders getting 34% support. The same poll showed the driving force behind Biden’s lopsided support: 60% felt the former vice president would run the strongest race against President Donald Trump, while 25% of Democratic voters had that faith in Sanders.
A landslide win in a state like Wisconsin would typically put overwhelming pressure on the loser to drop out of the race, in this case essentially ceding the nomination to Biden and allowing him to build a general election campaign and war chest to battle Trump in the fall.
But the complications of the novel coronavirus have made an election night call impossible, depriving the winner of a dramatic primary night speech and the loser, the impetus to go home and re-assess his campaign.
Despite heavy criticism, Wisconsin went ahead with its elections Tuesday. A confusing back-and-forth over absentee ballots, however, led the Wisconsin Election Commission to declare it would not announce the results until 4 pm Monday, April 13.
A federal district court ruled last week that because of difficulties Wisconsinites faced because of the virus threat, voters had until April 13 to return absentee ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed that order, but the state election commission decided to stick with April 13 for the announcement of results, anyway.
Sanders, political experts say, has a very narrow path to the nomination, trailing Biden by several hundred delegates. But his devoted core of supporters does not want the self-described democratic socialist to leave the stage, and Sanders, too, has been reluctant to give up the fight.
Sanders wants to keep the dialogue going on his pet issues, such as Medicare for All and free public college tuition. Collecting even a small number more delegates would also strengthen Sanders’ voice at the Democratic National Convention, when the party writes its platform.
But with national attention focused on the coronavirus and ensuing financial decline, it’s harder for Sanders to get Americans to listen (and a convention may be a virtual one, anyway), experts say.
“I’d say it’s a hair’s width chance” of Sanders somehow turning the race around and claiming the nomination, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll. “It’s incredibly difficult under normal electoral circumstances for a second-place candidate to catch up to a significant front-runner,” he says. “It would take a dramatic meltdown by the front-runner.”
Wisconsin’s results also might not be the defining moment for the nomination because of the difficulty people had in voting, elections experts say. People snaked around blocks in long lines – most keeping a CDC-recommended distance of six feet between people – but for some, the risk was just too great, citizens advocacy groups reported.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law received complaints Tuesday from voters that some people applied for absentee votes last month and never received them, meaning they would have to vote in person Tuesday to have their voices heard, committee president Kristen Clarke told reporters in a conference call. African Americans, who are statistically more at risk from the coronavirus, also might have felt nervous about showing up to vote, she said.
“There will be lingering concerns no matter how the election is run,” says Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s just not possible to run an ideal election in a public health pandemic. Who’s complaining about it will vary depending on what is done.”
While Biden was heavily favored, his supporters might be complacent and decide not to take the health risk and show up to vote, experts say. Similarly, Sanders voters might figure the race for the nomination is essentially over, and stay home as well, they say.
The delay in getting results in Wisconsin may be what voters experience in November, says Kevin Johnson, executive director of Election Reformers Network. If the threat of the virus is still a worry, more states may go to vote-by-mail balloting. The reporting by each states’ electors, normally a process that starts in December after the election, could also be drawn out more, still permitting a Jan. 20 inauguration, he says.
“Extra time is a little like insurance,” he says, allowing the votes to be counted accurately and giving credibility to the election.
Biden and Sanders are both still campaigning, but virtually. Sanders on Tuesday evening held a virtual town hall on the coronavirus.
Biden, speaking on the “Today Show” on NBC Tuesday morning lauded his opponent.
“Bernie has an incredible following. Bernie’s one of probably a half a dozen people in American history who may not be the nominee but has had an impact on American politics in a significant way…and a positive way,” Biden said. “So if I’m the nominee, I can tell you one thing: I would very much want Bernie to be part of the journey, engaging in all the things he’s worked so hard to do, many of which I agree with.”
But should Sanders drop out of the race now? “It’s a hard, hard decision,” Biden said. “But it’s his to make. I’m not going to suggest what he should do.”