Wisconsin Primary Election: Long Lines as Voters Head to Polls Amid Pandemic

Credit…Kamil Krzaczynski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Wisconsin is the first state to hold a major election with in-person voting despite stay-at-home orders for Americans protecting themselves from the coronavirus.

  • Polls will close at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Long lines have been seen in cities like Milwaukee, which has only five polling places open, and social distancing is a concern.

  • Wisconsin is holding its presidential primary between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr. Biden had a strong lead in a recent, widely respected poll.

  • The state’s elections commission has ordered municipal clerks not to release any results until April 13, in compliance with a federal court ruling.

  • Wisconsin Democrats wanted to extend absentee voting and even postpone the election altogether, but Republicans successfully blocked both in court. As a result, Democratic turnout is likely to be depressed because of the virus and the deadlines for absentee voting. A crucial seat on the State Supreme Court is on the ballot.

In Milwaukee, where election workers expect more than 50,000 voters, the number of polling locations has been drastically reduced, from more than 180 to just five. The effects were immediately apparent on Tuesday morning: Across the city, lines stretched for blocks even before 7 a.m. local time.

On the South Side of the city, the parking lot of Alexander Hamilton High School was already full as daylight broke. By 8 a.m., more than 300 voters waited in a line that snaked through the parking lot and down the street. One voter who had cast a ballot said the wait was one hour and 40 minutes.

At other locations nearby that would have normally been open for voting, signs were posted directing voters to Hamilton High School. But many of the locations were in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, predominantly Spanish or Hmong, and the only signs posted were in English.

At Marshall High School, in the northern part of Milwaukee, the line stretched for more than three blocks, with voters keeping six feet of space between each other. Most wore masks or other facial coverings.

The northern part of the city, which is predominantly black, has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus. Yet hundreds of voters had already queued by early morning.

The lines weren’t limited to Milwaukee. In Waukesha, a suburb just outside of Milwaukee, only one polling location was open for a city of 70,000. A similarly long line wrapped around a parking lot, as cones denoting a safe distance between voters helped break up the line.

Heading into Tuesday’s elections, the questions among Democratic and Republican operatives were clear: How many people will actually vote? Will the results be trusted? And will voters and poll workers fall ill?

The election is proceeding despite the advice of public health professionals who say the state’s leaders are putting residents at risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. But a bitter partisan dispute between the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and Republican lawmakers culminated in two decisions on Monday by the State Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court that favored Republicans’ efforts to hold the election as scheduled.

The legal back-and-forth has also caused confusion and logistical chaos among state election clerks, with some poll workers refusing to participate in Tuesday’s election. Other municipalities have drastically cut back or eliminated in-person voting options. The chair of the state Democratic Party pledged not to mobilize voters on Tuesday and has called on the state Republican Party to do the same.

Wisconsin awards 77 pledged delegates in the Democratic presidential primary, and could be another step toward Mr. Biden’s knocking Mr. Sanders out the race. Mr. Sanders had called on the state to delay its election, citing the coronavirus concerns, but he still faces pressure from allies and Democratic operatives who are ready to see him concede and rally behind Mr. Biden, who leads in pledged delegates and raw votes.

Wisconsin is a wildly important state in the general election, and often cited as a bellwether in the national Electoral College. Outside the presidential primary, voters are weighing the State Supreme Court race and a Democratic challenger to Milwaukee’s mayor, also a Democrat.

A series of official orders and court rulings whipsawed the public in the final days before Tuesday’s elections.

Now the municipal and county clerks who oversee voting in Wisconsin have to conduct a presidential primary, a critical State Supreme Court election and contests for more than 3,900 local offices amid a pandemic and the governor’s order for residents to stay in their homes.

It adds up to an election that became a logistical nightmare before the Election Day polls opened.

Like so much else in Wisconsin over the last decade, the state’s coronavirus response and opinions about moving the election broke along partisan lines.

Democrats, aiming to expand turnout especially in the state’s largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, sought to expand mail voting and delay the election until June. Republicans, wary of affording new powers to a Democratic governor and content with suppressing turnout in urban centers where the coronavirus has struck hardest, refused to entertain proposals for relief.

“Thousands will wake up and have to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe,” Governor Evers said after the State Supreme Court ruling on Monday.

But Dean Knudson, a Republican former state legislator who is chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said during a lengthy online session late Monday that voters who wished to participate in Tuesday’s contest would have no recourse but to venture to the polls — even if they had requested but had not yet received an absentee ballot.

“If they haven’t got their ballot in the mail,” he said, “they are going to have to go to the polling place tomorrow.”

Republicans have played down the danger to public health of voting during a pandemic. One Republican county chair, Jim Miller of Sawyer County, said the process would be similar to people picking up food to eat during the state’s stay-at-home order.

“If you can go out and get fast food, you can go vote curbside,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s the same procedure.”

Hannah Gleeson is a health care worker who lives in Milwaukee, is 17 weeks pregnant and recently tested positive for the coronavirus. She says she has voted in every election she has been eligible for — “I enjoy going in person. I like getting my sticker,” she said — but since contracting the virus she realized that going to a polling place would not be an option.

“I feel like especially right now, when there are so many things that can make you feel hopeless, voting is one of the only things that is still within your power,” Ms. Gleeson, 34, said.

So she requested an absentee ballot a week ago, well within the deadlines set by the state. But she never received one. When she saw that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down an extension of the deadlines, she called the state elections commission asking for her next options.

“They kind of said, yeah, that really sucks, hopefully you’ll have better luck with the next election,” Ms. Gleeson said. She said that some friends in Milwaukee had similar frustrations: one who requested a ballot on March 26 and had not received it, and another who made a request on March 9.

Now, Ms. Gleeson and her husband, who is not showing symptoms but is also isolating himself since Ms. Gleeson is sick, are not able to vote, or at least not able to do so without putting hundreds of people at risk.

“I’ve always said that every vote matters, every vote counts, and it’s your one chance to have your voice heard,” she said. “And it’s now something that I really feel has been taken away from me, and my husband as well.”

Forging ahead with the election thrusts thousands of clerks and poll workers, many of them older or with health conditions, onto the pandemic’s front lines.

As a result, thousands of poll workers said they wouldn’t show up, leading to major reductions in the number of polling sites, particularly in cities like Milwaukee. In Green Bay, there are usually about 31 polling locations, but on Tuesday there were just two. Though roughly 2,400 National Guardsmen were being trained as poll workers as late as Monday, it still won’t come close to the more than 7,000 who have already said they cannot work.

If there is a bright spot for Democrats, it will be in deeply blue Madison, where the mayor said more than two-thirds of the city’s polling locations would be open on Tuesday.

In the city of Oshkosh, where officials have implemented curbside voting, Brian Binder, 49, was one of many Wisconsin voters who reported not receiving the absentee ballots they applied for. Mr. Binder’s wife, who applied at the same time, received hers.

“There’s a large number of people who just did not get them,” said Mr. Binder, an employee of a food packaging company.

As a result of all the confusion and the coronavirus, Mr. Binder said he would not vote in this election, breaking a 30-year streak.

“I vote in every election, local primaries, since I was 18. I’m a person that takes it very seriously, your right and your responsibility to vote. However, given the situation with the virus I’m not sure I want to endanger myself or other people at the polls,” said Mr. Binder, who has been working from home for the past two weeks.

He also expressed frustration with the state’s deeply entrenched political division.

“I feel that this is something they shouldn’t play politics with,” said Mr. Binder, a lifelong Republican who said his support for the party had waned since President Trump’s election. “I don’t know why we couldn’t postpone to keep people safe. I don’t know what the goal was.”

Though voting may end on Tuesday night, there will most likely be a new round of lawsuits challenging both the results and the disenfranchisement of many voters. Many allied groups in Wisconsin were already gathering accounts of voters unable to get a ballot or vote in anticipation of litigation.

Adding to the uncertainty, the results themselves will most likely be delayed by almost a full week: The Wisconsin Elections Commission has directed local municipal and county clerks not to release results until next Monday afternoon, in compliance with a federal court ruling.

“Instead of having Iowa-style results where no one knows what to expect, if we stick to this we’re going to have a clean election tomorrow but we’re not going to report the results until the following week,” said Mr. Knudson, the elections commission chairman.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Corasaniti, Reid J. Epstein, Astead W. Herndon and Stephanie Saul.

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