MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Voters lined up to cast ballots across Wisconsin on Tuesday, ignoring a stay-at-home order in the midst of a pandemic to participate in the state’s presidential primary election.
The lines were particularly long in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, where just five of the 180 traditional polling places were open. Many voters across the state did not have facial coverings, ignoring public health recommendations. The National Guard — and some Republican officials who resisted efforts to postpone the election — were called in to help run voting sites after thousands of election workers stepped down fearing for their safety.
Polls were scheduled to close at 8 p.m. CDT, although results were not expected Tuesday 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 next Monday.
The chaos in 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. As the first state to hold a presidential primary contest in three weeks, Wisconsin becomes a test case for dozens of states struggling to balance public health concerns with voting rights in the turbulent 2020 election season.
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 also being held Tuesday, in which a lower turnout was thought to benefit the conservative candidate.
Lest there be any doubt about the GOP’s motivation, Trump on Tuesday broke from health experts who have encouraged all Americans to stay home by calling on his supporters to show up for the conservative judicial candidate.
“Wisconsin, get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly. Protect your 2nd Amendment!” Trump tweeted.
The Republican speaker of the state Assembly, Robin Vos, among those who fought to maintain in-person voting, joined more than 2,500 National Guard troops dispatched to help staff the polls. While many voters did not have any protective equipment, Vos donned a face mask, safety glasses, gloves and a full protective gown.
In Madison, city workers erected Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.
Wisconsin had reported nearly 2,500 coronavirus infections and 77 related deaths as of Monday night.
Downplaying health concerns, state GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt noted 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,” he said.
Hitt planned to vote 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.”
On the eve of the election, it was unclear whether in-person voting would happen at all.
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.
Wisconsin voters, Evers said, are “scared of going to the polls.”
With the U.S. Supreme Court decision, voters were given 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 Monday. 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 response to the decisions by the Republican legislature and the state Supreme Court, Sanders called holding the election “dangerous” and said it “may very well prove deadly.”
Meanwhile, voters shared what one called an “eerie” experience at the polls.
Christopher Sullivan, a 35-year-old high school business teacher from western Wisconsin, said two police officers greeted voters outside of his polling site in Holmen. Inside, two members of the county health department instructed him to wash his hands in a makeshift sink.
In another room, Sullivan was told to take one of the pens on a table spaced 6 inches apart and not give it back. He was given his ballot by “an elderly lady wearing a mask and gloves sitting behind a glass wall.”
“I have voted many times in my life (and at this location) and have never experienced something so eerie,” said Sullivan, who leans Democratic and voted for Sanders on Tuesday. “Because it is this unsafe to vote, maybe we should have postponed the election or done mail-in ballots.”
He said he was “ashamed to be from Wisconsin today.”