Wisconsin’s pandemic election: Long waits, face masks as voters go to polls

‘We are asking our voters to choose between democracy and disease,’ says Ann Jacobs, a Democratic state Elections Commission member

By Parker Schorr

The Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch

Wisconsin’s election during the coronavirus pandemic was marked by lines of voters stretching for blocks on Tuesday in Milwaukee and frustration that some residents — many wearing face masks or respirators — were forced to choose between risking their health and relinquishing their right to vote.

Outside of Milwaukee, some polling places were nearly deserted. And thousands of voters who requested absentee ballots to avoid emerging from their homes during the state’s stay-at-home order never got them.

Milwaukee voters, many of them wearing face masks, make their way into Riverside University High School, one of just five polling places in the city for Wisconsin’s election on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 as the state and the nation remained in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Ashley Norris was among them. She said she never got the mailed ballot she requested last week. That is why she spent nearly two hours in line at the polling station at Milwaukee’s Washington High School Tuesday, wearing a respirator and winter gloves.

“As an African-American woman, I think it’s my right to vote every time,” she told Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes tweeted that the election had turned into a “shit show.”

“This is a very sad situation for voters in Milwaukee and across the state,” said Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

Albrecht praised the safety precautions taken by poll workers, who wore gloves, masks and gowns. He said voting Tuesday was safer than going to the grocery store.

Voters make their way to the Lapham Elementary School polling place in Madison, Wis., during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Bram Sable-Smith / WPR/Wisconsin Watch)

Nevertheless, “I am very concerned,” he said. “It is a group gathering during a time where we are being advised by all levels of government to avoid group gathering.”

Some Wisconsinites wore their “I voted” stickers as badges of honor, although in some communities, poll workers declined to issue them to avoid spreading the virus.

As Wisconsin voted, the world watched.

The election came after a whirlwind of lawsuits and executive orders in recent days challenging how — and whether — the election should be held on Tuesday. Gov. Tony Evers called in 2,400 National Guard troops who served in plain clothes as poll workers and to encourage social distancing at voting sites statewide.

After failing to convince the Legislature to change the election, the Democratic governor on Monday issued a last-ditch executive order converting it to mostly mail-in ballots and postponing in-person voting until June.

Republican legislative leaders quickly pushed back, convincing the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court that Evers had overstepped his authority. Justice Daniel Kelly, who is on the ballot, recused himself from the 4-2 vote on Monday that reinstated Tuesday’s election.

A poll worker wears a gas mask while working at the Gates of Heaven polling place in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Wisconsin held its much-watched election during the coronavirus pandemic. (Parker Schorr / The Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch)

Dean Knudson, a former Republican lawmaker who now chairs the Wisconsin Elections Commission, cheered the move to forge ahead with in-person voting.

“This is a tremendous safeguard to the franchise to know you can go and vote on Election Day,” he said, adding that Wisconsin’s “hybrid” system of voting — which includes casting votes by mail — offers a variety of options.

The U.S. Supreme Court late Monday ruled that mailed ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday to count, even if voters who requested them had yet to receive them.

As of March 30, 15 states had postponed presidential primaries or other elections because of the pandemic. Tuesday’s election will decide the winner of Wisconsin’s Democratic presidential primary, a hotly contested state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local elections. Because of a federal court order, the results of the election will not be announced until April 13 to allow for the counting of late-arriving ballots.

Wisconsin’s statewide contest was watched around the globe as a test of the viability of holding an election amid the pandemic.

Among the lessons already learned: Many election workers will not serve over fears of contracting COVID-19. That prompted some municipalities, including Milwaukee, to sharply reduce the number of polling sites.

Milwaukee turned five high schools into massive polling places, replacing the normal 180 sites. Lines of voters, many of them spaced several feet apart, stretched for blocks on Tuesday. Albrecht said he anticipates 22,000 people will have cast their ballots in person, with 3,000 to 5,000 people voting at each of the five locations. 

Voter: Feels like disenfranchisement

Maya Neal, political strategy manager for Leaders Igniting Transformation in Milwaukee, said the lack of polling sites felt like disenfranchisement for the city’s African-American residents, who tend to have a harder time getting the proper ID to vote.

Voters stand in a long line to enter the polling place at Marshall High School in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The city reduced its 180 polling places down to five, citing a lack of workers willing to staff the election during the coronavirus pandemic. (Lauren Fuhrmann / Wisconsin Watch)

“Milwaukee is being disproportionately affected by the poll closures and the impact of these changes to the election, just continuing the voter disenfranchisement that we experience,” Neal said.

Normally, Neal would be cajoling everyone in her extended family to vote. But not this time — it was too dangerous. She told her sister, who has a weakened immune system and is recovering from heart surgery, to stay home.

“I couldn’t bring myself to do that (advocating voting),” she said. “I felt sad not being able to tell my family … to go exercise a right that our ancestors fought for and we continuously fight for.”

A record number of Wisconsin residents took advantage of early voting and absentee ballot options. Nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots were requested — more than four times the number requested in the presidential primary in April 2016.

But figures from the Wisconsin Elections Commission showed more than 9,000 of those ballot requests were not fulfilled by Tuesday. A commission official said that number could change as clerks update their figures, and one county deputy clerk said the final gap would likely be much smaller.

“I think this is yet another way in which the Republicans are succeeding in suppressing the vote,” said Jack Norman, spokesman for Voces de la Frontera, an advocacy group in Milwaukee. “They’re taking advantage of the health situation to minimize the number of people that are voting.”

Barbara Beckert, a director at Disability Rights Wisconsin, heard from a young woman in a nursing home who was unable to get an absentee ballot. Typically voters in nursing and group homes would be visited by special voting deputies who would help them vote, Beckert said. But because of visiting restrictions, that was not possible this election.

“Sadly, a lot of other people are in the same condition, but they aren’t well positioned to have some type of public outcry,” she said.

‘Let people vote safely’

Elizabeth Perry, a family physician, protested with her wife Rita Mae Reese outside the Madison East High School polling place with a handmade cardboard sign that said “Let people vote safely.”

Voters stand in a blocks-long line as the Milwaukee city skyline rises in the background on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The city reduced its usual 180 polling places to five, citing a lack of poll workers willing to staff the election during the pandemic. Voters are seen here lining up for the polling site at Riverside University High School. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

She said Tuesday’s election could undo the sacrifices Wisconsin residents have made to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which as of Tuesday had killed at least 92 people and been detected in 2,578.

Perry accused Republicans of ignoring the danger by forging ahead with Tuesday’s election in an effort to benefit Kelly, the Supreme Court justice appointed by former GOP Gov. Scott Walker. He is running against Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky for a 10-year term.

“This is just a petty ploy to suppress the vote, to keep in a Walker state Supreme Court appointee,” she said. “It’s such a naked power grab.”

Voter Sally Josephson also worried about safety. She wore a bandana over her face to vote, but a poll worker in rural Oshkosh, who was not wearing a mask, could not understand Josephson’s muffled speech. Josephson was unnerved when the poll worker touched her to direct her to the correct place.

“It’s just not ideal that we are forced to come out or we don’t get to vote,” Josephson said.

Voters stand in a long line in the pouring rain outside Marshall High School in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The city cut its polling places from 180 to five, citing lack of workers willing to staff the polls during the coronavirus pandemic. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat who serves on the Wisconsin Elections Commission: “We are asking our voters to choose between democracy and disease.”

GOP: Election ‘safe and fair’

On Monday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald waved away such concerns, saying Wisconsin clerks had worked hard to ensure a “safe and fair election.”

At many sites around the state, clerks erected plexiglass barriers between poll workers and voters. In Madison, poll workers with plastic face shields shuttled ballots between election sites and voters parked outside.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos tweeted this photo of himself working at a polling site on Tuesday in Racine County, Wis. Vos insisted voters were safe going to the polls, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Photo taken April 7, 2020.

The two Republican leaders said their strategy of encouraging absentee balloting had worked — although they had blocked an effort by Evers to mail absentee ballots to all voters to sharply limit in-person voting, citing concerns over voter fraud.

“We continue to believe that citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote at the polls on Election Day, should they choose to do so,” Vos and Fitzgerald said.

On Tuesday, Vos tweeted a photo of himself working at a polling place in Racine County. He was wearing safety glasses, a paper mask, plastic gown and latex gloves.

Wisconsin Watch Investigations Editor Jim Malewitz, Managing Editor Dee J. Hall and Edgar Mendez of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

________________

Their Wisconsin ballots never arrived. So they risked a pandemic. Or stayed home.

For possibly thousands of Wisconsin voters who requested absentee ballots that never came, a U.S. Supreme Court decision meant voting in person — or not at all

By Jim Malewitz

Wisconsin Watch

Tristain Thomas did not intend to go to the polls during a pandemic.

Thomas, a 38-year-old logistics technician from Appleton, thought ahead in early March. As Wisconsin’s share of the coronavirus pandemic turned serious, he requested a ballot be mailed to him — well ahead of the deadline to return it for Tuesday’s election.

It never came. So Thomas and his wife discussed their options Tuesday morning: give up their right to vote, or risk catching a virus at the polls.

They chose to vote, bringing a mask, gloves and hand sanitizer for protection against the virus.

“I know so many of my family fought for this right, and I didn’t want to let them down,” Thomas told Wisconsin Watch. “I had to do this, but it still makes your heart sink into your stomach.”

Tristain Thomas, a 38-year-old logistics technician, photographed himself at the polls in Appleton, Wis., on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, when Wisconsin forged ahead with in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic. He is among many Wisconsinites who requested mail-in ballots but never received them, prompting them to weigh the risks of voting in person. “I had to do this, but it still makes your heart sink into your stomach,” he says. (Courtesy of Tristain Thomas)

Thomas is among many Wisconsinites who requested mail-in ballots before Friday’s deadline but did not receive them from clerks by Election Day. The bureaucratic clog thwarted voters’ plans to participate in democracy from the safety of their homes. Some still voted, and others did not.

Wisconsin voters were set to have extra time to mail in their ballots after a federal judge Thursday said clerks could accept ballots received by April 13.  But the U.S. Supreme Court late Monday — just hours before polls were set to open at 7 a.m. — ruled that mailed ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday to count, even if voters who requested them had yet to receive them.

The court’s 5-4 majority wrote that voters who request their ballots on time in ordinary elections “will usually receive their ballots on the day before or day of the election.” Parties suing to give voters more leeway offered “no probative evidence” that voters “would be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections.”

‘It’s infuriating’

But on Tuesday, it was easy to find Wisconsinites who said they never received their ballot.

Sam Stanley, who works in a UW Health laboratory in Madison, said he never got the ballot he requested two or three weeks ago. He said voting was too important to skip, but he lamented being forced to take a risk to participate.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we’re literally doing what you’re told not to do,” he said.

He brought a mask and hand sanitizer, and said his polling place in Madison, where plexiglass separated clerks from voters, “wasn’t terrible” compared to scenes he’s seen from other cities — like Milwaukee, which whittled its list of polling places from 180 to five.

Sarah Schaefer, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art history professor, waited about 90 minutes — wearing a mask and gloves — to vote in Milwaukee after not receiving the ballot she requested last week.

“It’s infuriating, but it’s what I’ve come to expect from our Legislature,” Schaefer said.

But she added her trip to the polls was a positive experience overall.

“It felt like there was a common purpose, and people were being very humane to each other and thanking poll workers,” she said.

No mail, no vote

Amelia Brummond, 34, made a different choice Tuesday.

Sam Stanley, who works in a UW Health laboratory, photographed himself going to vote in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, when Wisconsin held in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. He said he never got the ballot he requested two or three weeks ago. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we’re literally doing what you’re told not to do,” he says. (Courtesy of Sam Stanley)

She submitted her request for a ballot for herself and her husband on March 12. Her husband’s ballot came weeks later, but hers never did.

Brummond said she tried to follow up with election officials in Milwaukee, but never got an answer. Brummond, who has five children, said she would not go to the polls on Tuesday. She had intended to vote in a school measure that was on the ballot, but called it too risky.

“I can’t bring coronavirus into my house,” she said. “I’m just going to have to opt out,” she told The Guardian.

Suzanne, a graduate student who asked that her last name not be used, requested her absentee ballot on March 4. It still had not arrived by Monday.

She emailed the Milwaukee Election Commission in the afternoon, which vowed to send a new ballot. The commission’s email, shared with The Guardian and Wisconsin Watch, said Suzanne had until April 13 to return the ballot.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled hours later that ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday. She emailed the commission again on Tuesday, asking for a ballot by email. This time, the commission responded and said staff could not reissue a ballot because the deadline of April 3 to request one had passed.

Suzanne did not vote Tuesday.

“Very disappointed, because this was my first voting experience,” she told The Guardian.

Madison voter Alejandro Riano also waited two weeks for an absentee ballot that never arrived. On Tuesday, he ventured out to an East Side grocery store to vote.

Riano said there were only half a dozen voters. He brought his own pen but ended up sharing it with other voters who also were afraid to use the pens provided by the city, which planned to sanitize them between uses.

Many fellow Latinos probably decided not to vote Tuesday because of fear of the pandemic, lack of technology to request absentee ballots and confusing rules, he said. Riano planned to make a series of videos in Spanish showing how to vote absentee, but he could not finish because he never got his ballot.

Riano said his partner decided voting was too dangerous and stayed home.

Ballot gap unclear

As of Tuesday afternoon, Wisconsin Elections Commission data showed that more than 9,000 of the roughly 1.28 million who had requested mailed ballots had yet to receive them. But the accuracy of that figure is unclear. Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe cautioned Monday night that the number, reported by busy county clerks, could change and may be smaller.

Sarah Schaefer, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art history professor, photographed herself voting in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, when Wisconsin held in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. She requested a mail-in ballot last week that had not arrived. “It’s infuriating, but it’s what I’ve come to expect from our Legislature,” she says about the decision to continue in-person voting as scheduled.

Said Ann Jacobs, a Milwaukee Democrat on the commission: “We should be embarrassed that this many votes are not going to be counted.”

Rural Green County, in south-central Wisconsin, reported 20 percent of its 7,061 requests were not filled. Only tiny Menominee County, which reported fulfilling 74 of 112 requests, reported a bigger percentage gap on Tuesday.

Green County Deputy County Clerk Arianna Voegeli called the data “not accurate,” and said her short-staffed office had fulfilled most requests, even if they had struggled to update the data. “Our clerks have been doing a phenomenal job of keeping up,” she said Tuesday.

When the final numbers emerge, she added: “I am very confident that the gap will be much smaller, if not nonexistent.”

Thomas, the Appleton voter, requested his ballot from Calumet County. If the county’s data are to be trusted, he appeared to be among a small group of voters — 14 — with unmet requests.

Thomas said he thought about his late grandmother as he considered whether to head to the polls Tuesday.

He recalled that Eartha Bonds, a centenarian, poured much of her energy into civil rights efforts, and even marched alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“This vote is pretty important,” Thomas said. “This right that we have is huge. The only way we’re going to change things is to vote, and we can’t allow our vote to be suppressed.”

Sam Levine of The Guardian and Parker Schorr of the Cap Times contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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