(Bloomberg) -- Wisconsin voters defied stay-at-home orders and waited for hours to cast ballots in the first state to hold an in-person election since the coronavirus pandemic shut down most public spaces.
Although at least a dozen states have delayed primaries or switched to vote-by-mail since the outbreak, similar attempts by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, were stymied by Republican opposition and rulings from the conservative majorities on the state and U.S. Supreme Courts.
Adding to the uncertainty, the results of Tuesday’s vote won’t be released until April 13. The delay was ordered last week by a federal judge as part of a ruling on extending absentee voting.
Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders were at the top of the ticket with 87 delegates at stake in the presidential primary fight. Biden, who has a near-insurmountable lead over Sanders, is expected to win the state handily.
But there were state and local offices on the ballot, which may have triggered the unusual insistence by the state GOP leaders to proceed with the voting on Tuesday.
Democrats have accused the state’s Republicans of political motives in refusing to delay the vote, saying that lower turnout caused by the pandemic would help ensure that a Republican incumbent candidate for the state Supreme Court, Daniel Kelly, would be re-elected to a 10-year term, cementing his party’s 5-2 majority.
But Republicans countered that voting rules shouldn’t be changed so soon before an election and called attempts to loosen them by the governor and a federal judge a constitutional overreach.
Candidates Weigh In
The state court race bled over into the presidential race, with Biden endorsing Kelly’s challenger, Jill Karofsky. President Donald Trump urged voters to “get out and vote” for Kelly, whom he said would defend gun rights.
“Wisconsin, get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly. Protect your 2nd Amendment!” he tweeted.
Trump said Tuesday that Democrats’ push to delay the Wisconsin election was politically motivated and came only after he endorsed Kelly.
“As soon as I endorsed him, the Wisconsin Democrats say ‘oh, let’s move the election to two months later,’” he told reporters at a White House briefing. “It was 15 minutes after I put out an endorsement that they said we have to move the election. They didn’t want to move the election before that.”
In an interview on CNN, Biden said the in-person election shouldn’t have taken place. “This was all about the Republican Legislature pushing really, really hard” to make sure there was a vote because “low turnout” is in their interest, he told Chris Cuomo.
Biden, however, had argued earlier that voting in the primary would be safe, though he has said that the Democratic National Convention scheduled for this summer in Milwaukee might have to be held virtually.
“A convention having tens of thousands of people in one arena is very different than having people walk into a polling booth with accurate spacing with six to 10 feet apart, one at a time going in, and having the machines scrubbed down,” he said.
The election led to renewed calls among congressional Democrats for national legislation to address the pandemic’s effects on voting. It’s likely that there will be court challenges to the results when they are announced Monday.
“An election that forces voters to choose between protecting their health and casting their ballot is not a free and fair election,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, who chairs the Committee on House Administration.
Sanders called for delaying the vote last week, saying “people should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote.”
The battle over how to hold the primary continued right up to Monday, when the state Supreme Court blocked Evers from postponing the election by executive order and the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a lower court’s ruling that would have extended absentee voting by a week but maintained the delay in counting the vote until Monday.
The nation’s highest court divided along ideological lines, with the five Republican appointees in the majority. In an unsigned opinion, they said the district judge’s order would “fundamentally alter the nature of the election by allowing voting for six additional days after the election.” The court’s four Democratic appointees dissented, saying the rights of tens of thousands of people would be affected.
Voting rights experts agreed, saying the changes effectively disenfranchised thousands of voters who didn’t want to risk contagion at polling places and sought absentee ballots after Evers ordered Wisconsinites to stay at home in a state that had 2,440 cases and 84 deaths as of Monday.
“It’s a colossal failure,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.
No ‘I Voted’ Stickers
With many poll workers choosing to stay home, some towns and cities in Wisconsin drastically cut the number of polling places, while Evers called out the National Guard to help balloting. Each voter received his or her own pen to mark ballots and “I voted” stickers were eliminated.
Milwaukee had five polling places open instead of more than 180 that are normally open.
Patrick S. Tomlinson, a science fiction author who lives in Milwaukee, spotted a long line at the Riverside University High School polling station in Milwaukee Tuesday morning. He said it took 10 minutes to walk from the front to the end of the line, in part because voters were keeping the recommended six feet apart from one another.
“It was massive,” he said. “I’ve been voting in every election since moving to Milwaukee eight and a half years ago, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Erik Forkin, 23, a software developer in Madison, said that about half of the poll workers at his voting place in a senior center weren’t wearing masks or protective gear.
“That seems problematic when they’re dealing with hundreds of people,” he said.
Andrew Hitt, head of the Wisconsin Republican Party, blamed municipalities for the lines at some polling places.
“Cities that have long waiting times to vote could have opened a sufficient number of locations to prevent long lines,” he said. “Local elected officials and election planners need to answer to their constituents as to why they’ve chosen not to use resources at their disposal when the vast majority of polling locations across the state are running smoothly.”
Milwaukee county clerk George Christenson said he was still upset that the election was being held at all, saying it was putting voters’ lives at risk.
“This election is being conducted as safely as possible, but there is no 100% guarantee that people will not be affected or harmed health-wise,” he said.
(Updates with results delayed until Monday, in the third paragraph)
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