Wisconsin Holds In-Person Primary Voting Amid Coronavirus


Wednesday, April 8th 2020, 3:24 am
By: CBS News


Voters around Wisconsin traveled to the polls on Tuesday in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday's voting comes after days of legal battles over challenges to the election and some state leaders declining to take action to move the election day, as many other states have done. 

 Voters in Milwaukee, and some in other parts of the state, waited in long lines to cast their ballots. Many voters and election workers donned masks for protection and tried to maintain social distancing while waiting in line. 
 
In the days leading up to the election, local election officials and health experts raised concerns about a lack of poll workers leading to fewer sites and more crowds. State officials encouraged people to vote absentee and the record number of absentee ballot requests has also pushed the limits for clerks trying to keep up with demand. 
 

Eleven states and Puerto Rico have moved their primaries and others have decided to conduct them with mail voting. Voters in Wisconsin are also casting ballots for a state supreme court seat and other local officials, in addition to the presidential primary. 

The most crowded polling places on Tuesday were in Milwaukee. The city of nearly 600,000 people operated just five in-person polling sites rather than its usual 180. 

Neil Albrecht, the executive director of the city of Milwaukee Election Commission, said wait times were 1.5 to 2 hours on Tuesday morning. Election workers did their best to enforce social distancing, but he acknowledged that everyone was in a difficult position. 

"I think this is a very sad situation for the voters in Milwaukee and across the state," Albrecht said. His office has spoken to some voters who hadn't missed an election in decades, but didn't want to take the risk of voting in person for health reasons. 

More than 2,400 Wisconsin National Guard members were available to help fill the shortage of poll workers around Wisconsin. Albrecht said that Milwaukee didn't realize how much help it would get until after they made the decision to open just five locations and he could only operate the number of sites that he felt "confident and comfortable" he could fully staff. 

On Monday, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers made a Hail Mary attempt to suspend in-person voting until June by executive order, but the move was challenged by GOP legislative leaders and blocked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Evers blasted the decision, saying voters were forced "to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe." He echoed those concerns on Tuesday, but called voters and election workers heroes. 

"Although I remain deeply concerned about the public health implications of voting in-person today, I am overwhelmed by the bravery, resilience, and heroism of those who are defending our democracy by showing up to vote, working the polls, and reporting on this election," Evers said in a statement on Tuesday. 

In the middle of Election Day, Wisconsin health officials reported that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state jumped from 2,440 on Monday to 2,578. The number of deaths from the virus increased from 77 to 92. 

During a press briefing on Monday before the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Evers' executive order, Wisconsin Health Secretary-designee Andrea Palm gave a dire warning about in-person voting because it would "result in mass gatherings."

"In-person voting would, without question, accelerate the transmission of COVID-19 and increase the number of cases," Palm said. "And an increase in the number of cases in Wisconsin would result in more deaths."

Albrecht told reporters that he's "very concerned" that in-person voting could lead to a spike in Coronavirus cases in Milwaukee. But, he voted in-person on Tuesday and praised the safety measures taking place. 

"I am 100% confident that you are safer than if you go into a grocery store, when you appear to vote at one of these voting centers today," Albrecht said. 

"I have to come down here today and risk my life to vote and I'm happy to do it because that is my right," RoseMary Oliveira told our Milwaukee affiliate WDJT. "I'm here, they're not going to stop me from voting."

The election has also presented a strain on the state's no-excuse absentee voting system, leaving some people waiting for the ballots even if they were requested weeks ago. 

 

Nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots were requested, according to data released Tuesday morning from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. There were about 9,000 fewer ballots sent compared to the number requested. Two thirds of the ballots had been returned. 

Sarah Meadows, a freshman at Alverno College in Milwaukee, requested her absentee ballot in mid-March. A Wisconsin elections site says it was sent on March 22, but it never arrived, even though her family's ballots did. Meadows didn't vote in person because her father has underlying health conditions and her family has been minimizing who they expose themselves too. 

"That doesn't feel fair to me that I should sacrifice my father's life literally for my vote, but have to give away that civil liberty, which I deserve as an American citizen," Meadows said. "If you think that we're not well enough to go to school, go to work, and we have a stay at home order, why then should we go out and vote?" 

"Any voter that contacted us was reissued a new ballot," said Albrecht, the Milwaukee elections official, in a statement. "This is an unfortunate situation and reflects what would have been the benefit of an extended absentee voting period. It would have allowed us to sort out these types of situations in a manner that would still have allowed people to cast their ballots."

A ruling from the United States Supreme Court on Monday night blocked an extended deadline for people to return absentee ballots. They now have to be returned by the time polls close or marked by Election Day to be counted. 

A lower court order last week prevented clerks from releasing results until April 13, the date the judge had set the absentee ballot return deadline.  

"In order to ensure consistent compliance with that order, the number of ballots will be counted on Election Night but votes will not be counted until April 13," WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a letter to clerks Monday night. 

The bitter legal battle over changes to the election is a likely preview of fights that will be coming over voting by mail. Democrats have been pushing for hundreds of millions of dollars to help states expand early, absentee and mail-in voting.

"Have all the experts, both political parties and academia laying out what it would take to have voting by mail," said former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday. "I'd much prefer to have in-person voting, but it depends."

But most Republicans, including President Trump, don't like the idea.

Mr. Trump said on Tuesday night that there are "a lot of dishonesty going on with mail-in ballots." Mr. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump voted by mail during the Florida primary in March and during the 2018 midterms. When Mr. Trump was asked about that, he said he did it "because I'm allowed to."