After a messy, partisan fight in the State Legislature and State Supreme Court, Wisconsin held an in-person election on April 7, 2020. At that point the state had confirmed 2,500 COVID-19 cases and lost at least 92 people to the virus, with the majority of the suffering concentrated in Milwaukee’s Black community. As a poll worker in Madison, I spent election day behind a Plexiglas window, wearing a homemade mask, checking voters’ names in the poll book. Some voters came wearing masks and gloves. Some wrapped their IDs in plastic to avoid contact. Many voters cast their ballots curbside so they never had to leave their cars. Most didn’t show up at all. In Milwaukee, which had only five open polling places, voters waited in line for hours desperately trying to stay six feet apart. Countless people reported not receiving absentee ballots in time to vote. While the headlines focused on the last contested Democratic primary and a bitterly partisan State Supreme Court race, most of the seats on the ballot were in city and county governments.
Without a final decision on whether the election would occur until the evening before, local governments had to prepare for two difficult possibilities. Either a postponed election would force local officials to remain in office months after their terms’ end, or in-person voting would make participation low, dangerous, and uneven. Both could pose a significant threat to the crucial work cities must do to confront the current crisis. We now rely on local governments to implement “Safer-At-Home” orders and respond to acute outbreaks in their communities. Cities must ensure the continuity of essential services while keeping both their workers and residents safe. And, as the economic ramifications of COVID-19 spread, local governments must develop new ways to address the economic insecurity of their residents even as they struggle with their own financial shortcomings.
Right now, cities cannot afford to jeopardize their legitimacy in the eyes of their residents, but Wisconsin’s local elections may have done just that. Milwaukee’s mayor quashed a challenge from a longtime Black political leader in an election where turnout was down 40%. Turnout was similarly low in the city’s races for alder, nearly all of which broke for incumbents. The problem wasn’t confined to Milwaukee; declines in participation in mayoral, city council, and county board races appeared across the state.
Low participation in local politics is not unique to this moment (Caren 2006), but COVID-19 may exacerbate its consequences. Will communities accept the decisions of their leaders when so many voters didn’t (or couldn’t) participate in their election? Will low turnout intensify representational distortion (Heerwig and McCabe 2017), with local leaders more responsive to the needs of those older, wealthier and whiter populations who still voted? This problem extends beyond elections: nearly all of the traditional tools to build community buy-in and accountability in local politics cannot weather this kind of crisis. Public forums have been canceled and community outreach programs suspended. Council meetings have been moved online and door-to-door neighborhood organizing is now nearly impossible.
These problems will intensify as communities move beyond managing the immediate crisis and adapt to a new reality. The extended public health and economic crisis will hit communities in different ways and demand unique, locally driven responses. College towns must prepare for a summer (and possibly a fall) without students; vacation communities for a season without tourists. Small cities built around a few major employers must anticipate that plants could be closed indefinitely, while agricultural communities grapple with reduced demand for their crops. In larger, more diverse cities, local leaders must work to manage the growing conflict between those relatively insulated parts of their community who demand a return to normal and those parts still being ravaged by disease and despair.
Other states may mitigate these problems by holding safer, more participatory local elections than those in Wisconsin, but that will not be enough. Community and urban sociologists have a critical role to play in helping communities reimagine what participatory local politics looks like in the COVID-19 era. We have decades of research on what fosters an inclusive local political process and what breeds exclusion, disengagement and apathy (for recent examples that span methodological approaches, see Hoekstra and Gerteis 2019; Carbone and McMillin 2019; Tran et al. 2013). Now, when the stakes of distrust and exclusion are highest, we can help local governments adapt to the needs of their communities and the realities of this crisis.