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.
Across the Milwaukee River and a few blocks away at Riverwest Elementary School, there were also no lines or issues to be seen Tuesday morning, and election volunteers noted that they had been getting a lot of first time voters across age groups, suggesting the precarity of the time is inspiring civic engagement from the formerly sidelined.
This includes Biden voter Maria Sanchez, a middle-aged woman who voted for the first time in person on Tuesday.
When asked what motivated her to vote for the first time, Sanchez pointed to “a lot of the violence” recently in the state and country, as well as “stuff that’s going on with Covid.”
Trump has complained at rallies and to media as of late that liberals are temporarily using the coronavirus pandemic as a means of drowning out other issues to defeat him, and polls and experts seem to agree that handling Covid-19 is the number one issue among Democratic voters.
Although she admitted the voting process was “scary at first,” Sanchez said poll workers guided her through the process and she walked away from the polls glad to have gotten involved.
“I’m just happy!” Sanchez said.
Another voter named Nikita, a Milwaukee native who described herself as “Democrat all day,” explained on her way out of the polls that education issues affecting her school-aged children were the chief motivator behind her vote, saying that “we’ll have more change with Biden.”
“I appreciate voting in person, it’s more personal,” Nikita said of her preferred voting method on Tuesday.
Jack and Debra Klepp, originally from northern Minnesota and Detroit, respectively, mentioned that Debra voted by mail in April but Jack could not because his ballot did not arrive in the mail in time, an issue some reported regarding mail voting during the primary that local election officials worked hard to avoid for the general election.
The Klepps have not always been straight Democratic voters, however, as Debra mentioned she voted for Republican Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in the 90s.
But for Jack, “Trump’s lying, his criminal response to Covid and incarceration of kids at the border” were the three main things that put him firmly in Biden’s camp.
Though casting in-person ballots appeared to be smooth sailing for the most part in Milwaukee early on Tuesday, the unprecedented number of absentee and mail-in ballots presents a daunting challenge for election officials, who have repeatedly advised voters that it will likely take them until the early hours of Wednesday morning to get every vote counted.
The first shift of around 400 election workers at downtown Milwaukee’s central count facility began opening, flattening, double checking and tabulating roughly 175,000 anticipated absentee ballots just after 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Absentee ballots cannot begin to be counted until the morning of Election Day under Wisconsin law, which also dictates that absentee ballot totals cannot be released until after the last one is tabulated.
The combined efforts of carefully opening and smoothing absentee ballots by hand and feeding them into 10 tabulating machines is laborious to say the least, and Milwaukee Election Commission chief Claire Woodall-Vogg has estimated it could take until 3 or 4 a.m. Wednesday before the work at central count is done.
The central count facility will have a livestream of its operations running all day and all night Tuesday until the last absentee vote is counted.