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Wisconsin voters are waiting in 5-hour lines in the middle of a deadly pandemic

The state has been under a shelter-in-place order since March 25.

A woman checks in to cast her ballot during a Democratic presidential primary election at the Kenosha Bible Church gym in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. 

Polls opened at 7 am in Wisconsin despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, despite the Democratic governor’s attempts to delay the election because of said epidemic, and despite calls from public-health experts to stay home.

The result by mid-morning was what critics feared: Voters were queued up in long lines, waiting for hours to vote in crowded and understaffed polling stations.

Experts fear the prolonged public gatherings could undermine efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Take this line of scores of voters waiting at one city’s singular polling location, which a journalist with the local ABC affiliate tweeted:

The state has been under a shelter-in-place order since March 25, but Republican officials in the state fought to ensure the election would proceed as originally scheduled, and the state’s and nation’s highest courts ruled in their favor on key logistical outlets.

The highest-profile race at stake Tuesday is the Democratic presidential primary, which Joe Biden is expected to win, according to recent polls. But given the state of the Democratic primary, the state Supreme Court seat also on the line could be far more consequential. (There are also several other key state and local elections on the ballot.)

As of Monday afternoon, there have been 2,440 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in the state, along with 77 deaths, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Here’s what we know about the chaos seen in Wisconsin and what it could mean for the November general election throughout the country.

What we know

  • Voters are waiting in what are expected to be hours-long lines to vote at several polling locations in Milwaukee, according to videos tweeted by CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and Nick Corasaniti of the New York Times.
  • Long lines formed across the state, including in Green Bay, where there are only two polling locations open compared to the usual 31, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette.
  • Fearing contracting Covid-19, most poll workers in the state have refused to work the polls Tuesday, meaning the state has had to drastically cut back on polling locations.
  • In Milwaukee, which is heavily Democratic and where 40 percent of residents are black, the state only has enough staff to open five polling locations, when there are typically 180 in the city, according to Molly Beck of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced he was calling in the National Guard on April 1 to staff polling locations, given the shortage of poll workers.
  • The Wisconsin Assembly speaker, Republican Robin Vos, was seen in personal protective equipment working the polls, in Burlington. Vos led one of the lawsuits against Evers to prevent the election from being delayed.
  • The pandemic has created new challenges to meeting existing voting requirements. For example, voters must have a witness sign an absentee ballot. That has become a problem for at least one voter who had contracted Covid-19 and had no one present to witness their ballot, according to a tweet by a member of the Fair Elections Project.
  • Voters are having to overcome several barriers to voting on top of those related to the pandemic, including multiple reports of registration issues, confusion over polling locations, and never receiving an absentee ballot.

Why this is happening

Simply put, there aren’t enough election workers to run a free and fair election in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Poll workers in the state have refused to staff the polls for fear of catching the virus. As a result, while the city of Milwaukee usually has 180 polling locations for a given election, there’s now only enough staff for five. More than 100 municipalities reported that they didn’t have enough poll workers to open a single polling place. In response, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called in the National Guard in order to work the polls.

While other states simply delayed their elections, Wisconsin was initially reluctant to do so because of the general elections for the state and local offices. When Evers did begin attempting to delay the election, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature declined to take any action to move Election Day. As recounted by Vox’s Ian Millhiser:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Republican is the capstone of a weeks-long effort by the Republican Party to make it difficult for voters to actually cast a ballot in Wisconsin. Last week, Gov. Evers called the state legislature into session and asked it to delay the election. But the Republican-controlled legislature ended that session just seconds after it was convened. After Evers acted on his own authority to delay the election, the state’s Supreme Court voted along partisan lines to rescind Evers’s order. Republicans also rejected Evers’s proposal to automatically mail ballots to every voter in the state.

That set off a series of legal challenges that all broke along party lines and culminated in a Monday US Supreme Court decision with the court’s five conservatives deciding that absentee ballots must be postmarked by Election Day. (That overturns a previous court’s ruling that allowed ballots to be postmarked later, as long as they arrived by April 13.)

The actions in Wisconsin could have repercussions in this fall’s general election, Millhiser explained:

The background is that Republicans hope to hold onto a seat on the state Supreme Court, which is up for grabs in Tuesday’s election. As law professor and election law expert Rick Hasen recently noted, “only 38% of voters who had requested an absentee ballot in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County had returned one, compared with over 56% of absentee voters in nearby Republican-leaning Waukesha County.” So there’s at least some evidence that, if additional voters are unable to return their ballots, Republicans will be overrepresented in the ballots that are counted.

It’s also worth noting that, if Wisconsin had free and fair elections to choose its state lawmakers, Evers would most likely have been able to work with a Democratic legislature to ensure that Tuesday’s election would be conducted fairly. In 2018, 54 percent of voters chose a Democratic candidate for the state Assembly. But Republicans have so completely gerrymandered the state that they prevailed in 63 of the state’s 99 Assembly races.

There is far more at stake in Wisconsin, moreover, than one state Supreme Court seat. Wisconsin could be the pivotal swing state that decides the 2020 presidential election. The question of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden occupies the White House next year could easily be determined by which man receives Wisconsin’s electoral votes.

And the Court’s decision in Republican suggests that the Supreme Court will give the GOP broad leeway in how US elections should be conducted.

Wisconsinites, for their part, have tried to make do and vote safely. As of last Wednesday, 1,053,556 absentee ballots had been requested from the state. However, it’s unclear how many of those absentee ballots will end up counting, after the Supreme Court decision.

The legal maneuvering and the pandemic’s inherent risk have created a perfect storm to produce long — and potentially life-threatening — lines for voting.

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