Wisconsin Voters Brave Pandemic Again for Special Election

A Republican state lawmaker and a Native American judge are facing off for a House seat that will be up for grabs again in November.

The streets were mostly empty in Hudson, Wis., on Election Day. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

HUDSON, Wis. (CN) — Voters in northern Wisconsin braved the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday to cast their ballots in a special election to fill the vacant 7th Congressional District seat, just a month after the state saw record absentee voting in a virus-stricken presidential primary. 

Polling places in the towns of Hudson and Somerset near the state’s western border saw a steady trickle of voters choose between Republican state Senator Tom Tiffany of Minocqua and Tricia Zunker, a Democrat who is president of the Wausau School Board and justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court.

Lines were rare and short at polling places in the two border towns despite Wisconsin’s consolidation of polling locations to save personal protective equipment. With two polling places each, local officials in Hudson noted that the in-person turnout was much lower than it had been during the state’s presidential primary and Supreme Court election on April 7. 

The mood at Hudson’s firehouse, which hosted voting for two-thirds of the city’s voters, was easygoing early in the morning, with Police Chief Geoff Willems and Finance Director Alison Egger making casual conversation with voters in the parking lot.

A polling place in Hudson, Wis., on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

By 9:30 a.m. the vote count at the firehouse had reached 114. Hudson’s other polling place, a Methodist church a few miles away, reported a total of 72 voters minutes earlier. That seemed low to Willems, who said there’d been over 700 voters in April.

“Where’d the other 600 go?” he asked. “I blame Russia,” he added, cracking a grin through a black-and-blue striped mask. 

Despite their smaller size, the town and village of Somerset – two separate political entities along the Apple River with populations of 4,000 and 2,600, respectively – saw a much higher rate of in-person voting, with 101 voters in the village around 10:30 a.m. and 474 in the town just after 11 a.m.

Polling places in both Somersets employed their own social-distancing strategies. In the village, an official at the door listed Covid-19 symptoms to one voter, asking if he’d experienced any of them. The town’s polling place offered free ballpoint pens to all voters, asking that they vote and take the pen home rather than leaving it for other voters to reuse. 

Voters exiting the polls overwhelmingly said they were impressed with election workers’ efforts to make voting safe during the pandemic, though some said they’d like to see more remote voting. 

“They do a real good job,” Bill Bengston of the village of Somerset said of poll workers’ sanitization and social-distancing efforts. He said he also voted in person for the April 7 election.  

“I’m a little old school,” he chuckled. 

In Hudson, Lori Laatsch took her 18-month-old granddaughter Zuri with her to City Hall, across the street from the fire station, to drop off her son’s mail-in ballot. She’d voted for Zunker by mail awhile earlier, she said.

“Last time I voted in person, but I made sure I was the first one” in order to avoid the crowds, Laatsch said of last month’s primary election.

“It would be great if everyone could do it by mail,” she added. “I appreciate all the precautions being taken… but there might still be people contracting Covid from being out and about to vote.” 

Wisconsin reported 198 new confirmed cases and nine deaths on Monday, bringing the state’s total cases to 10,611 and its death toll to 418. 

The Badger State managed to avoid a large spike in cases in the wake of the April 7 election. Wisconsinites supported former Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential primary and elected Democrat-backed Jill Karofsky to the state’s high court

Over 1.5 million voters took part in that contest, and 1.3 million of them case absentee ballots. State health officials have said that 67 confirmed Covid-19 cases were people who voted in person last month, but they have only definitively connected 19 of those cases to the primary election. 

That success came as a pleasant surprise after Wisconsin became an early proving ground for elections under the threat of a pandemic. The state received national attention when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballots cast in the election could not be processed after Election Day.  

Poll workers quit en masse, leaving 300 National Guard troops to replace the volunteers, and questions remain about the processing of those absentee ballots. A federal lawsuit from disenfranchised voters also seeks to loosen restrictions for 2020’s remaining elections, and Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order has been also challenged in the state’s right-leaning Supreme Court. 

A polling place in the village of Somerset, Wis., on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

Amid all the drama, the 7th Congressional District race seems primed for a repeat of April’s absentee-fueled election. Over a quarter of the district’s 420,000 voters requested absentee ballots for Tuesday’s election, and 69,000 of those had already been returned as of Monday. 

The district is widely considered to be a safe bet for Tiffany, the Republican state lawmaker. After the 42-year tenure of Democrat Dave Obey ended in 2011, voters elected the conservative Sean Duffy for five consecutive terms before he resigned the seat for family reasons last September.

Tiffany, like Duffy, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump and lists “standing with President Trump” as the first issue on his website. A resident of the small town of Minocqua in the state’s northwoods, Tiffany has served two terms in the Wisconsin Senate. 

Bengston, the voter in the village of Somerset, supports Tiffany and said taxes were his big issue.

“The old saying is, if you want to pay higher taxes, vote Democrat,” he said. “And I like to hold on to some of that money myself.” 

Jean Anderson, of Hudson, said she was impressed by Tiffany’s character.

“I’ve known of him for a while,” she said, waiting in line at United Methodist Church in Hudson, which maintained a three-household limit inside, “and I think he’s a good guy.” 

Zunker, meanwhile, has sought to straddle her party’s ideological divide, taking up progressive positions on issues like campaign finance reform and far-reaching criminal justice reforms while keeping a moderate “Medicare for all who want it” stance on health care, one of her biggest issues.

As a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Zunker would be the first Native American representative from Wisconsin if she is elected, and only the third nationwide. 

For Zunker voter Mark Okerson, of the town of Somerset, this special election is a referendum on the nation’s trajectory.

“I’m leaning more toward the Democratic side. It seems like in the last 10 years, they seem to have more interest in bringing the country forward,” he said.

The pandemic exemplified that view for Okerson, who said Republican leadership had dropped the ball in handling the crisis.  

“We’re just totally unprepared now, and there’s really no excuse,” he said. “Hopefully better times are coming.” 

Whether Tiffany or Zunker emerges the victor, they will be in Washington, D.C., for less than six months before the seat is up for grabs again in November. 

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