Wisconsin GOP Forced Thousands Of Voters To The Polls During A Pandemic

As the state announced 15 new coronavirus deaths, Republicans insisted on in-person voting in the hopes lower turnout would help them hold on to a critical court seat.

Lines outside Milwaukee’s five polling stations — there were usually 180 — stretched blocks. In Madison, Wisconsin, polling stations usually occupied by university students were almost entirely empty, as resident halls were cleared out weeks ago. Poll workers sat behind Plexiglas barriers, donning masks and gloves. Some wore face shields and gowns.

In one polling station in Madison, voters didn’t get “I voted” stickers after casting their ballots — a precaution poll workers took to minimize human contact.

Despite a statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, Wisconsin held an election during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday. As voters lined up at the polls, the state health department reported 138 new coronavirus diagnoses and 15 deaths. This election was not a democratic exercise, as it required voters to choose between their health and their right to vote. It is a poor omen for what awaits when November comes.

Evers tried twice to postpone the election. First, he called for the Republican-controlled legislature to do so in a special session, but they gaveled out the session in a matter of seconds without taking action. Then he issued an emergency order moving the election to June, but the Republican-allied judges on the state Supreme Court overruled that. The Democratic Party also sued to expand absentee balloting, but all five Republican-appointed U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled against it.

“Good morning and welcome to the Shit Show! Today’s episode has been produced by the Supreme Court and directed by the incomparable Speaker and Senate Majority leader duo. Buckle up, this one’s sure to disappoint!” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) tweeted Tuesday morning.

“I thought of one other better way to explain it, but calling it a shit show was the mildest way to put it,” Barnes told HuffPost in an interview. “I have told people if they have a ballot, get it in the mail ... In good faith I cannot tell people to go out there and vote.”

Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were on the ballot for the presidential primary on Tuesday, but the most important race in the state is the state Supreme Court race pitting incumbent conservative Dan Kelly, who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, against progressive lower court judge Jill Karofsky.

Republicans hope to keep their 5-2 majority on the court intact with a Kelly victory. That will enable them to easily rule in favor of a conservative group’s challenge to purge 240,000 voters ahead of November’s general election. (Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 22,000 votes.) It would also all but ensure judicial approval to any similar future effort by the heavily gerrymandered Republican legislative majority if it votes to cut Evers out of the 2021 redistricting process.

“It’s not a secret: they want to protect this Supreme Court seat,” Barnes said, pointing to the 2018 lame duck legislative session when Republican lawmakers tried to keep the Supreme Court race off the presidential primary ballot, a typically higher turnout election. “This whole thing is political. This is the fallacy of nonpartisan courts. They knew exactly who to run to. They knew they could get exactly what they wanted politically through the Supreme Court here and the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Voters masked against coronavirus line up at Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election, April 7 in Milwaukee.
Voters masked against coronavirus line up at Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election, April 7 in Milwaukee.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin did not engage in its typical on-the-ground get-out-the-vote efforts, and neither did the presidential candidates. State election results will not be released until April 13 due to the overwhelming number of absentee ballots cast, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

State leaders, particularly in the Democratic Party, urged voters to cast an absentee ballot in lieu of voting in person. But the rules for absentee voting shifted as various courts handed down decisions in the days leading up to the election and the crush of requests meant some voters did not get their ballot in time. This left some voters with their right to vote invalidated.

For weeks, Republican leaders in the state have refused Evers’ proposal to send absentee ballots to every registered voter, and extend mail-in voting dates.

“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans, said in a statement, defending their insistence that election workers to show up amid the state outbreak. The Republican officials fought any and all changes to in-person voting in the courts until the very last minute.

“You are incredibly safe to go out,” Vos said, while wearing a full-body protective suit, mask and gloves as he worked the polls in his district.

By Monday evening, it became clear that voters would have to choose whether they were willing to risk exposure to the virus in order to exercise their right to vote.

“People think this is damn dumb,” said Daniel Schultz, 51, a poll worker in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin — a small town roughly 70 miles north of Milwaukee. Schultz signed up to work the election after hearing reports of staff shortages.

Wisconsin Elections Commission reported nearly 60% of Wisconsin’s municipalities had staffing shortages the week before election day. The city of Milwaukee decided to consolidate its 180 polling stations to just five. The state deployed more than 2,000 members of the state’s National Guard to operate polling stations.

“It’s a personal health and safety question you have to ask yourself,” Nate Moll, 30, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and regularly staffs elections, said. On Tuesday he was stationed at a consolidated voting ward in one of the university’s student unions. “I did go back and forth ... One of my friends ducked out because he lives in a house full of other people. It was too large of a risk to go out.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Wisconsin voters had returned a record-breaking 864,750 absentee ballots out of a total of 1.2 million sent out, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. But nearly 10,000 voters who requested an absentee ballot never received one. Unless they receive their ballot on Tuesday and get it to a certified drop-off site by 8 p.m., they would have been forced to vote in person ― or not vote at all.

That’s what happened to Amanda Jessen, 33, a driver who has been out of work due to the pandemic. Jessen, who lives in Milwaukee, didn’t want to vote in person because she is immunocompromised and pregnant. She requested an absentee ballot on March 22, but it never arrived. That left her and her husband with no choice but to find a drive-up voting location. They brought their own masks, gloves and pens to vote. Luckily, they also brought mail that could prove their address as they were required to register to vote again.

“The whole thing has been pretty scary because the GOP is out to get Milwaukee,” Jessen said, adding, “It’s really, really bad that they’re making us risk our health so that we can have a say as citizens. It’s a betrayal.”

An opponent of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to proceed with the state's spring election amid coronavirus concerns displays a sign in her car in Madison, Wisconsin, Tuesday, April 7. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
An opponent of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to proceed with the state's spring election amid coronavirus concerns displays a sign in her car in Madison, Wisconsin, Tuesday, April 7. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Jesse Pokora, a 40-year old software engineer and Iraq War veteran, also requested an absentee ballot in March and never received it. The polling location he was assigned to in Milwaukee was located in the middle of one of the state’s biggest coronavirus hotspots. He decided it was not safe to vote.

“The government had an opportunity a couple days ago when the legislature got together at the Capitol and they callously refused to do so,” Pokora said about the Republicans in the legislature. “They made a choice for their own self-interest ― whatever it was ― to put people like myself in harm’s way today.”

Other voters may have cast absentee ballots under rules that no longer apply. On April 2, Circuit Court Judge William Conley extended absentee voting in a ruling that allowed Wisconsin voters to return their ballots as late as April 13. Absentee voters could also waive the required witness signature if they attested that they could not secure a witness due to the pandemic, according to Conley’s ruling.

But the Supreme Court overturned Conley’s decision in a 5-4 vote split along partisan lines Monday night. Ballots without a witness signature, even when the voter attested they could not obtain one, as briefly allowed, will now be considered invalid, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Even worse, voters will not be allowed to cast a replacement ballot in person. This has thrown the election into a state of chaos.

“What we’re hearing is most voters have been very confused,” Shauntay Nelson, the Wisconsin state director for All Voting Is Local, a nonpartisan voting rights organization that has been helping answer voters’ questions on Election Day, said.

But that chaos was not evenly distributed across the state. Some localities maintained most of their polling locations, while others did not. In Madison, 66 of the normal 90 voting locations were open. Some even allowed drive-through voting. That was not the case in Milwaukee, which contains the large majority of Black state residents.

Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Neil Albrecht told reporters the city could have opened more polling stations if they had known how many members of the National Guard would be assisting.

Milwaukee is also the epicenter of Wisconsin’s coronavirus outbreak. The city has reported more than 1,300 of the state’s 2,500-plus positive coronavirus cases and nearly half of the state’s 92 coronavirus deaths.

Wisconsin expects to see its coronavirus caseload and deaths peak on April 17, a more optimistic scenario than previously reported thanks to the state’s lockdown. That could change after Tuesday’s election forced crowds into gyms and other polling locations.

“Two weeks from now when people start dying, their family members are going to have [the Republicans in the legislature] to blame,” Pokora said.

Barnes said the state is already thinking about November, if the virus persists or comes back.

“We have to be prepared for an all-mail election,” he said. They weren’t ready this time.

I myself waited a good 10 days to get [an absentee ballot],” Barnes said. “I don’t blame the elections commission on that, I don’t blame the clerks on that ... We were not well-positioned to accommodate those requests. Going forward, we have to be able to accommodate the requests of everybody.”

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