Coronavirus Looms Over Presidential Fight for Wisconsin

Poll workers demonstrate in-person voting setup at the Milwaukee Election Commission warehouse alongside MEC executive director Claire Woodall-Vogg, far left. (Courthouse News photo / Joe Kelly)

(CN) — Once the canary in the coal mine for pandemic voting, Wisconsin’s outsized importance in November’s general election is set against raging coronavirus activity in the state and the daunting logistics and legal fights over how to handle an unprecedented number of mail-in absentee ballots.

Both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden have placed the Badger State battleground on a pedestal as a linchpin to victory. Trump won Wisconsin over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes, the first time a Republican presidential candidate took the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Both campaigns have spent serious cash in Wisconsin, and a recent influx of ads and high-profile visits illustrate the gravity of carrying America’s Dairyland and collecting its 10 electoral votes.

Trump has relied on a more pronounced ground game thus far, while Biden has opted for a virtual approach that prioritizes advertising, which the campaign casts mainly as a Covid-19 precaution.

Biden and Trump each came to the city of Kenosha in early September, where violent protests erupted after 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a white Kenosha police officer. Trump toured torched businesses and hammered on law and order; Biden stressed unity and hope during a town hall event at a local church.

Polls, including one released by Marquette University Law School on Wednesday, have mostly shown Biden with a modest but persistent lead over the president in Wisconsin. Wednesday’s Marquette poll had Biden as the choice of 46% of likely voters compared to Trump’s 41% support and 4% support for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen.

Election workers preparing ballots alongside voting machines at the Milwaukee Election Commission warehouse. (Courthouse News photo / Joe Kelly)

Experts are somewhat surprised by the consistency of Biden’s lead, but they also don’t believe it is indicative of an overwhelming love for Biden among a voter base entrenched in their respective partisan ideologies.

Barry Burden, professor of political science and founding director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, said “the polls are really showing a lot of stability in voters’ preferences, and voters seem to have made up their minds,” contrasting with 2016 when polls were more volatile.

Burden confirmed trends like Biden’s support in liberal urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison against Trump’s strong base in rural northern regions of the state and the counties immediately north and west of Milwaukee.

But the professor noted that “Trump is still struggling a bit in the suburbs,” where he’s not faring as well as popular conservatives like former two-term Republican Governor Scott Walker.

Smaller to medium sized cities like Neenah and Sheboygan are trending toward Biden, Burden said, and both candidates are paying close attention to areas in the state’s Fox River Valley near Green Bay.

Michael Moran, chair of the Democratic Party of Brown County where Green Bay is located said, “Brown is interesting because it has Green Bay but it also has a lot of rural areas” with farms that “have been devastated by Trump’s trade wars.”

Poll results are not everything for Moran, who offered that “the polls could say anything and I don’t think we’d let our foot off the gas until Nov. 3.”

Chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin Andrew Hitt is also not married to polls and remains confident of the president’s odds. Hitt brought up the race in 2016, when a Marquette poll had Trump down by six points two days before the election, a time when many surveys considered Wisconsin a safe win for Clinton.

An election worker sorts ballots at the Milwaukee Election Commission warehouse. (Courthouse News photo / Joe Kelly)

“As we compare 2016 to 2020, we’d say we’re in a pretty similar boat now as we were then, so we feel very good about the state of the race,” said Hitt, who nevertheless acknowledged it will be very close.

The Republican chairman said Trump’s strengths with voters lie in issues of the economy and law and order, whereas Democrats “by and large are primarily motivated by Covid and, quite frankly, an opposition to Trump.”

Of the two candidates’ approaches to campaigning in Wisconsin, Hitt said “Democrats are up in the clouds in a virtual world and we’re on the ground,” reaching out to voters.

Trump’s strength no doubt lies in broadcasting directly to his most fervent supporters at bombastic rallies, but that was brought to a screeching halt late last week when he cancelled two rallies slated for Green Bay and La Crosse after the White House revealed he, the First Lady and multiple staffers had tested positive for Covid-19.

Moran, who represents liberals in an area particularly ravaged by Wisconsin’s recent virus surge, said Trump’s diagnosis proved that Covid-19 is “extremely real” and he is distressed that “it’s almost as if we’re living in two separate worlds,” one where Covid-19 is real and one where it is not.

Wisconsin set a new daily record on Thursday with 3,132 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 900 hospitalizations. The state Department of Health Services reported Thursday a total of 141,830 coronavirus cases in the state, with 1,424 deaths so far.

Voting signs gathered at the Milwaukee Election Commission warehouse. (Courthouse News photo / Joe Kelly)

In the past week Democratic Governor Tony Evers limited indoor public gatherings and announced that part of Wisconsin State Fair Park south of Milwaukee in West Allis will be used as a field hospital for patient overflow from overwhelmed hospitals starting next Wednesday.

Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature have stalled on a statewide response to the virus since the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down an extension to Evers’ lockdown order in May and said any coronavirus plan needs to run through the Legislature. Local conservatives are also fighting Evers’ recent mask mandate in court.

Mordecai Lee, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who spent more than a decade in both chambers of the state Legislature as a Democrat, does not believe Biden’s lead in the polls is rock solid, saying Wisconsin is “sort of Biden’s to lose” but that the race remains “mostly a dead heat.”

But the coronavirus will likely remain an unavoidable campaign issue, Lee said.

“If there’s one thing that affects how people vote, it’s the question of ‘how does this affect me?’” Lee offered. “[Coronavirus] is the thing that’s in every Wisconsinites’ everyday life.”

All civic life everywhere has been disrupted by Covid-19, but perhaps no aspect has been more potently and pressingly affected as voting.

Ballot materials arranged at Milwaukee Election Commission warehouse. (Courthouse News photo / Joe Kelly)

Wisconsin has been embroiled for months in litigation over election procedures ever since the state’s chaotic April primary, when voters geared up in masks and gloves and braved long lines to vote in person on Election Day in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The matter, for now, was settled by the Seventh Circuit Wednesday when the appeals court halted an expansion to absentee voting ordered by a district court judge in September, which Republicans rigidly opposed.

With election laws seemingly confirmed less than four weeks ahead of Nov. 3, election officials like those in Milwaukee are preparing as best as they can.

During a press event Wednesday at the Milwaukee Election Commission’s main warehouse where it is currently packing and handling returned absentee ballots, commission chief Claire Woodall-Vogg laid out the extensive preparations for handling hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots, at least 40,000 of which have already been returned.

On a state level, the Wisconsin Elections Commission has gotten more than 1.2 million absentee ballot requests from Wisconsin’s roughly 3.5 million registered voters, and as of Friday more than 646,000 absentee ballots were reported as returned statewide.

Milwaukee’s election commission is stocked with more than 200 voting machines to be divvied between 173 polling places for Election Day, around 400 plexiglass shields and 12 tabulating machines at a separate central counting facility taking up a floor of office space the size of a city block downtown.

Voters will be able to utilize 15 early voting locations as well as 15 secure drop boxes peppered throughout the area, which are under 24-hour surveillance and checked daily by teams of two.

Experts and election officials resoundingly agree on one thing: getting accurate results even by the early hours of Nov. 4 is a tall task, and voters need to be patient.

Ballot drop box outside of the Milwaukee Election Commission warehouse. (Courthouse News photo / Joe Kelly)

Under Wisconsin law, clerks cannot begin to count the expected glut of absentee ballots until the morning of Election Day, and current law does not give them any extra time to count them.

Woodall-Vogg said last-minute changes to Wisconsin’s election laws are “unfortunately nothing new” and asked voters not to be surprised if they wake up the morning of Nov. 4 to discover tens of thousands of “new” votes counted, which is due to election officials racing to catch up and count absentee ballots.

Burden and Lee agree that voters’ commonplace reliance on binding results the night of Election Day is simply untenable this year.

Burden said “voters need to change their expectations of what we can know on election night or the next day,” especially this year.

Lee agreed that results have never really been “official” on the night of the election, but added that additional discrepancies with things like postmarks, witness addresses and signature verification could leave the door open to contesting ballot legitimacy.

“If it’s close…there will be an embarrassment of riches for attorneys to go to court,” Lee said.

An APM Reports analysis from July showed that technical errors caused 23,000 ballots to be rejected and thrown out during Wisconsin’s April primary — the same margin Trump won by in 2016.

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