MILWAUKEE (CN) – A line of hundreds of voters wearing masks both surgical and homemade curled around the block outside Riverside University High School on Milwaukee’s East Side Tuesday morning, as voters braved the Covid-19 pandemic to cast in-person ballots in Wisconsin’s controversial primary election.
Residents gathered at safe distances outside the polls, offset by police barricades and triage tents, to vote in the only April primary with in-person voting amid the pandemic. More than a dozen other states have foregone in-person voting in tune with state and federal health directives, casting Wisconsin as a guinea pig for running face-to-face elections during the coronavirus outbreak.
As of Tuesday, Wisconsin’s health department officially reported 2,440 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including 77 deaths.
Riverside High is one of five polling places open in the city of Milwaukee, a bare minimum carved from the usual 180 locations serving the city of nearly 600,000. City election officials have repeatedly warned in recent weeks that they have less than 400 poll workers out of the typical 1,400, leading Governor Tony Evers to mobilize the Wisconsin Army National Guard to help out at the polls in Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
That’s just Milwaukee. More than 100 jurisdictions throughout the Badger State have reported they are critically understaffed and working without basic supplies.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission has laid out strict guidelines for handing off ballots to poll workers, likely masked and gloved, from a safe 6-foot distance to ensure adherence to social distancing guidelines.
Some 1.3 million absentee ballots have been requested for Tuesday’s primary, but only around 57% have been returned, leaving over half a million ballots currently in the wind.
The political high drama leading up to Tuesday’s primary featured multiple lawsuits, a stalled special session of the Wisconsin Legislature and an 11th hour party-line decision from the U.S. Supreme Court barring an extension to absentee voting ordered by a federal judge.
Absentee ballots must be cast and postmarked for Tuesday in light of the order from the nation’s highest court.
Evers, a Democrat, had also issued an executive order on Monday calling off in-person voting altogether, but that was enjoined hours later by a 4-2 party-line decision from the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Litigation concerning how to execute Wisconsin’s primary has been exhaustive and entirely partisan. State Republicans fought tooth-and-nail to keep the polls open Tuesday, while Wisconsin’s liberals stressed the peril awaiting voters at crowded polls and pushed for a delayed primary and mail-only ballots.
Sara Benesh, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, saw the fight over voter access as a typically partisan one, with conservatives arguing for civic order and blocking voter fraud and liberals arguing that open polls during a pandemic will result in broad disenfranchisement and that casting an absentee ballot requested on time and postmarked by today is a luxury not everyone can afford, particularly given the confusion over election procedures.
“Rescheduling the election, as we’ve rescheduled literally every other event where there was to have been a large gathering of people given this global pandemic, would have been the responsible thing to do,” Benesh said.
Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison, agreed.
“It is unfortunate that the health crisis, indecisive leadership, and partisan hostility between the branches of government have forced voters and poll workers into this unfortunate situation,” he said.
Burden considered concerns about voter fraud to be beside the point, as “allowing additional days for submission and counting of absentee ballots does not undermine any of the protections that are in place.” He pointed out that voters still have to be registered, provide ID and get witness signatures on their ballots, and poll workers and clerks still have to follow the same chain of custody procedures for ensuring ballot security.
The exigent dangers presented by the worldwide spread of Covid-19 and the last-minute legal wrangling over its effects on Tuesday’s election have cast Wisconsin’s presidential primary in a very different light.
That contest, between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, seemed much more dynamic as recently as six weeks ago.
It’s fair to chalk some of that shift up to the coronavirus dominating the news cycle and hijacking public attention, but it’s also fair to say that since Super Tuesday Biden has simply garnered more key support in the right states.
Wisconsin voters seem to have taken notice, as a Marquette University Law School poll released April 1 showed Biden with 62% of voter support to Sanders’ 34% in March, a seismic shift from February when Sanders held 29% support compared to Biden’s 15%. Although it’s important to note that the number of candidates has winnowed since then, resulting in less data spread, the change is still telling.
At the state level, no race encapsulates the Badger State’s partisan rancor more than that between conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and liberal Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky for Kelly’s seat on the state high court.
Despite being officially nonpartisan, the race between Kelly and Karofsky is plainly, bitterly partisan in tone. The two have sniped at each other through the media and at debate forums, with each condemning the other to be in the pocket of the special interests that support them.
And support them they have. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law reported that over $2.5 million in outside special interest cash has been dropped on the race. Coupled with high-profile partisan endorsements from the likes of Sanders and President Donald Trump, the amount of money being spent makes clear that either thinning out or reaffirming the 5-2 conservative majority on Wisconsin’s highest court is a top priority for interest groups.
Politics aside, public health officials are concerned chiefly about the potential spread of Covid-19 between voters faced with a choice between risking serious illness and forfeiting their right to vote.
Amanda Simanek, an associate professor of epidemiology at UW-Milwaukee, said Tuesday that in-person voting is “definitely antithetical to public health measures in place right now.”
She posited that “if we’re telling people that we shouldn’t gather in public, there shouldn’t be a mandatory reason to gather today,” adding that this kind of gathering “undermines all the hard work so many of us around the state have done social distancing in the last three weeks.”
“It’s a realistic risk considering where we are in the epidemic curve,” Simanek said.
Given the extra week for clerks to gather absentee ballots, results from Wisconsin’s primary will not be released until after 4 p.m. on April 13.