MILWAUKEE (CN) — The scene at a polling place on Milwaukee’s East Side was uncongested and breezy Election Day morning, as voters seeking to shut the door on an acrimonious presidential campaign during an already draining year made their choices between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Riverside University High School’s vibe Tuesday morning was a far cry from the long lines and agitation that were a feature of Wisconsin’s chaotic April primary, when a flurry of last-minute partisan court battles over how to hold elections during the coronavirus pandemic—then only weeks old—sent voters to polls wearing masks and gloves to protect against a virus few at the time understood.
Lawsuits abounded over how Wisconsinites could vote safely and securely in the general election as well, culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a district court judge’s order which, in part, would have let election officials count absentee ballots until Nov. 9 as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
Clear sidewalks, plenty of election volunteers dispensing hand sanitizer, pens and masks and temperate sunny weather greeted voters at Riverside High on Tuesday in addition to a DJ booth set up by advocacy group Milwaukee Action Intersection.
Nevertheless, the easygoing atmosphere Tuesday morning belied the virus’ recent surge in the state, one of the worst in the nation featuring a recent 30% average daily positive rate for new cases. As of Monday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 232,296 confirmed coronavirus cases with 2,050 deaths, although 78% of total cases have recovered.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe noted in a press briefing Tuesday morning that while poll workers and election observers will be required to wear masks, voters are encouraged but not required to since such a qualification cannot be added to the constitutional right to vote.
Milwaukee, a city of around 600,000, usually has around 180 polling places available on Election Day, but coronavirus precautions downsized that number to just five for the April primary as officials scrambled to conduct a safe election in the pandemic’s early days. City leaders have said nearly all of the standard 180 polling places will be open on Tuesday.
Inside Riverside’s gym, election officials were hard at work guiding voters through registration processes and toward socially distanced voting booths that had not seen a lot of action from early to mid-morning. Officials told Courthouse News around 9:30 a.m. that only 128 votes had been cast so far, a very low tally for a presidential election at the typically bustling polling place.
Part of the low in-person turnout no doubt stems from the record levels of absentee voting seen this election cycle in the Badger State and nationwide. The Wisconsin Elections Commission reported Tuesday morning that nearly 2 million absentee ballots had been returned, representing over half the state’s registered voters and more than 60% of its total turnout in 2016.
Trump narrowly defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that year by less than 23,000 votes, earning Wisconsin’s modest but critical 10 electoral votes on his way to an upset victory in the general election.
Clinton did not visit Wisconsin once on the 2016 campaign trail, something Democrats have sorely regretted ever since. Both Trump and Biden have been competing hard for Wisconsin this time around, with the president making multiple trips to the state in the last two weeks, including an election eve rally in Kenosha, a highly contested region in the southeastern part of the state and site of recent unrest sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who remains paralyzed from the incident.
Polls all have Biden at least slightly ahead of Trump in Wisconsin, but they disagree about the size of his lead. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released six days ago gave the former vice president a whopping 17-point lead on Trump, but a Marquette University Law School poll released the same day only had him up by 5 percentage points, a difference barely outside the survey’s margin of error.