Wisconsin asked hundreds of thousands of voters to ignore a stay-at-home order in the midst of a pandemic to participate in Tuesday’s presidential primary election, becoming a test case for dozens of states struggling to balance public health concerns with a core pillar of democracy.
The National Guard helped to run voting sites across the state after thousands of election workers stepped down fearing for their safety. Dozens of polling places were closed, but those that were active opened at 7 a.m.
Hundreds of voters across the state, many without masks covering their faces, waited in line to cast ballots at crowded polling sites. Some poll workers, including the Republican state Assembly speaker, were wearing masks, gloves and what appeared to be surgical scrubs.
Results were not expected to be released election night. In the wake of a legal battle over whether to conduct the election as scheduled, a court ruling appeared to prevent results from being made public earlier than April 13.
The Election Day chaos that loomed over Wisconsin, a premiere general-election battleground, underscored the lengths to which the coronavirus outbreak has upended politics as Democrats seek a nominee to take on President Donald Trump this fall.
Joe Biden hopes the state will help deliver a knockout blow against Bernie Sanders in the nomination fight, but the winner of Tuesday’s contest may be less significant than Wisconsin’s decision to allow voting at all. Its ability to host an election under the lash of a growing pandemic could have significant implications for upcoming primaries and even the fall general election.
“This is a warning sign for November and a problem that states need to take all steps to avoid,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program. “Americans should not have to choose between their health and their right to vote.”
Democrats in and out of Wisconsin screamed for the low-profile contest to be postponed, yet Republicans — and the conservative-majority state Supreme Court — would not give in. The partisan split was colored by a state Supreme Court election in which a lower turnout was thought to benefit the conservative candidate.
In an overnight tweet, Trump encouraged people to vote. That followed an earlier tweet in which the president urged those going to the polls to “be safe.”
While Trump’s health advisers encouraged all Americans to stay home, Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt downplayed the health concerns. The state had reported nearly 2,500 coronavirus infections and 77 related deaths as of Monday night.
“Wisconsin voters are pretty determined,” Hitt said, noting that Wisconsin residents are still going to the grocery store, the liquor store and even boating stores classified as essential businesses. “I can’t really think of something more essential than voting.”
Hitt said he was among those voting in person on Tuesday, even though he did not have a mask to cover his nose and mouth. On Friday, Trump said a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that all Americans wear masks if they leave their homes was “voluntary.”
“I don’t have one. I’m sure most of Wisconsinites don’t have masks,” Hitt said. “This isn’t New York City.”
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, when asked about the dilemma facing Wisconsin voters, said he understands how important the right to vote is. He urged anyone going out to vote to do so “as safely as possible” by following social distancing guidelines pushed by the White House.
“I say, as a black man that I know that people have died for the right to vote. This is very important to our entire country, and if people are going to go out there and vote, then, please, do it as safely as possible, maintain six feet,” Adams said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today.” “Please, especially in Wisconsin, consider wearing a cloth facial covering to protect your neighbor. If you’re going to exercise your right to vote, do it as safely as possible.”
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Monday afternoon to postpone the election. Less than four hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans who said Evers didn’t have the authority to reschedule the race on his own.
Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court quickly followed with a 5-4 ruling that overturned a lower court’s decision expanding absentee voting.
Evers himself had questioned whether he had the power to reschedule the election, but said the worsening situation, including an increase in COVID-19 deaths, made clear there was no way to safely move forward. The first-term Democrat said he sought the delay because he was motivated by protecting public health, not politics.
“The people of Wisconsin, the majority of them, don’t spend all their waking hours thinking about are Republicans or Democrats getting the upper hand here,” Evers said. “They’re saying they’re scared. They’re scared of going to the polls.”
With the U.S. Supreme Court decision, voters found no extra time for absentee voting. The court said absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by Tuesday evening or postmarked by Tuesday, although they can arrive at clerks’ offices as late as April 13. Wisconsin election officials said the high court’s order left intact a provision of the lower-court order that no returns be reported until that day.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the coronavirus outbreak had caused a surge in absentee ballot requests and thousands of voters who requested them will not have received their ballots by Tuesday.
“The Court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement,” she wrote.
In response to the decisions by the Republican legislature and the state Supreme Court, Sanders called holding the election amid the virus outbreak “dangerous” and “may very well prove deadly.” The Sanders campaign will not engage in traditional get-out-the-vote efforts, he said.
Meanwhile, critics raised the prospect of major Election Day complications, particularly given that thousands of poll workers stepped down. That led the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, to reduce its planned number of polling sites from 180 to just five.
More than 2,500 National Guard troops were dispatched to staff the polls, where they were expected to help perform the normal functions of poll workers while also distributing hand sanitizer. In Madison, city workers erected Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.
Kat Devlin, a magazine editor who works from her home in Milwaukee, applied for an absentee ballot during the third week in March but never received it. The state should have postponed the election, she said.
“It’s just dangerous to have so many people going to the polls,” she said.