WASHINGTON -- The political and legal chaos that engulfed Wisconsin's primary Tuesday marked the beginning of a national battle over how democracy will function in the middle of a pandemic -- a months-long struggle that could tip the balance of power between the major political parties.
At stake is the most basic function of a democracy -- the ability to hold elections that partisans on both sides regard as valid. That consensus, already eroded in the Trump era, is now being further undermined.
Prompted by Republicans' refusal to postpone the state's primary, the Wisconsin meltdown whipsawed voters with on-again, off-again election plans, polling locations drastically reduced, and makeshift protections against contagion. It provided the most public view so far of partisan tension over election rules and how they threaten to sow chaos in upcoming primaries and the general election.
Republicans for years have viewed measures to expand access to the ballot as attempts by Democrats to gain an advantage. In the current crisis, they have launched a coordinated national effort to limit the ramp-up of absentee and mail-in voting, which have been urged by independent election-integrity experts in the face of the coronavirus.
If the pandemic continues into the fall -- or if the virus recedes during the summer and then returns, as many experts expect -- that could force millions of voters to choose between casting their ballots and safeguarding their health.
The battle is playing out now because states that don't currently allow widespread mail-in balloting would have to begin changing their systems soon to have any hope of pulling off a mail-in election in the fall.
The GOP once backed mail-in balloting when it was viewed primarily as a tool to expand voting options for seniors. Now, however, party leaders, from President Donald Trump on down, are openly working to block proposals by election officials to mitigate disruption.
Democrats said the chaos in Wisconsin underscored the importance of planning for remote balloting in the general election.
"We should be thinking ahead now," former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrats' likely presidential nominee, said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show. "Have all the experts, both political parties and academia laying out what it would take to have voting by mail."
Trump and many of his Republican allies, however, portray moves to expand mail-in ballots not as neutral contingency plans to accommodate a public health threat, but as a partisan ploy to engineer a lasting expansion of the electorate in Democrats' favor.