Thousands wait in long lines to vote in Wisconsin primary

Thousands of Wisconsin voters waited hours in long lines outside overcrowded polling stations on Tuesday so they could participate in a presidential primary election that tested the limits of electoral politics in the midst of a pandemic.

Milwaukee had 5 polling stations, down from an expected 180 before COVID-19 pandemic

Robert Forrestal, left, wears a full face chemical shield to protect against the spread of coronavirus while voting in Janesville, Wis. Hundreds of voters in Wisconsin are waiting in line to cast ballots at polling places for the state's presidential primary election, ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat. (Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP)

Despite federal health recommendations, thousands of Wisconsin voters waited hours in long lines outside overcrowded polling stations on Tuesday so they could participate in a presidential primary election that tested the limits of electoral politics in the midst of a pandemic.

Thousands more stayed home, unwilling to risk their health even as Republican officials pushed forward with the election amid a stay-at-home order. But many of the potential voters who remained in their homes complained that the absentee ballots they had requested never showed up.

Wisconsin asked its voters to ignore a stay-at-home order to participate in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary, becoming a test case for dozens of states struggling to balance public health concerns with a core pillar of democracy.

The National Guard helped run voting sites across the state after thousands of election workers stepped down fearing for their safety. Dozens of polling places were closed.

Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden hoped the state would help deliver a knockout blow to his rival Bernie Sanders, but the winner of Tuesday's contest may be less significant than Wisconsin's decision to allow voting at all. Its ability to host an election during a growing pandemic could have significant implications for upcoming primaries and even the fall general election.

WATCH | People crowd Wisconsin polling stations during pandemic:

People crowd Wisconsin polling stations during pandemic

The National

1 year ago
The threat of COVID-19 didn’t stop people from getting out to vote in local elections and primaries in Wisconsin. 2:01

Results were not expected to be released Tuesday night. In the wake of a legal battle over whether to conduct the election as scheduled, a court ruling appeared to prevent results from being made public earlier than April 13.

The chaos that loomed over Wisconsin, a general-election battleground, underscored the lengths to which the coronavirus outbreak has upended politics as Democrats seek a nominee to take on U.S. President Donald Trump this fall.

Sanders called the decision "dangerous" on Twitter and said his campaign would not be engaged in traditional get-out-the-vote activities on Tuesday.

"It's outrageous that the Republican legislative leaders and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin are willing to risk the health and safety of many thousands of Wisconsin voters tomorrow for their own political gain," said Sanders.

"This is a warning sign for November and a problem that states need to take all steps to avoid," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's democracy program. "Americans should not have to choose between their health and their right to vote."

Democrats within and outside Wisconsin called for the low-profile contest to be postponed, yet Republicans — and the conservative-majority state Supreme Court — would not give in. The partisan split was coloured by a state Supreme Court election in which a lower turnout was thought to benefit the conservative candidate.

'This isn't New York City': State's top Republican

Wisconsin Republican Party chair Andrew Hitt downplayed the heath concerns. The state had reported nearly 2,500 coronavirus infections and 77 related deaths as of Monday night.

"Wisconsin voters are pretty determined," Hitt said.

Wisconsin residents are still going to the grocery store, the liquor store and even boating stores classified as essential businesses, he said. "I can't really think of something more essential than voting."

An engineer at South Division High School sets up some of the voting booths at the school in Milwaukee on Monday. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via The Associated Press)

Hitt said he would vote in person on Tuesday, even though he did not have a mask to cover his nose and mouth. On Friday, Trump said a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that all Americans wear masks if they leave their homes was "voluntary."

"I don't have one. I'm sure most of Wisconsinites don't have masks," Hitt said. "This isn't New York City."

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, when asked about the dilemma facing Wisconsin voters, said he understands how important the right to vote is. He urged anyone going out to vote to do so "as safely as possible" by following social distancing guidelines pushed by the White House.

"I say, as a black man, that I know that people have died for the right to vote," he said on NBC's Today show.

"This is very important to our entire country, and if people are going to go out there and vote, then, please, do it as safely as possible, maintain six feet. Please, especially in Wisconsin, consider wearing a cloth facial covering to protect your neighbour. If you're going to exercise your right to vote, do it as safely as possible."

Michael Claus, 66, was among the many voters who risked their health to vote. Claus, who is black, wore a protective mask and a Tuskegee Airmen cap.

He said he tried to vote absentee and requested a ballot in March, but it never showed up. His only option was to vote in person. He blamed the Republican-controlled state legislature.

"They could have delayed the election with no problem," Claus said. "They decided if they can suppress the vote in Milwaukee and Madison, where you have a large minority presence, you can get people elected you want elected. And that's sad."

'They're scared of going to the polls'

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Monday afternoon to postpone the election. Less than four hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans who said Evers didn't have the authority to reschedule the race on his own.

Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court quickly followed with a 5-4 ruling that overturned a lower court's decision expanding absentee voting.

Evers himself had questioned whether he had the power to reschedule the election, but said the worsening situation, including an increase in COVID-19 deaths, made clear there was no way to safely move forward. The first-term Democrat said he sought the delay because he was motivated by protecting public health, not politics.

"The people of Wisconsin, the majority of them, don't spend all their waking hours thinking about are Republicans or Democrats getting the upper hand here," Evers said. "They're saying they're scared. They're scared of going to the polls."

Tuesday's vote has followed substantial legal wrangling and protets. A group with C.O.V.I.D., Citizens Outraged Voters in Danger, protest while wearing masks outside the State Capitol on April 4 when a special session regarding the spring election in Madison, Wis., was held. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed no extra time for absentee voting. The court said absentee ballots must be hand delivered by Tuesday evening or postmarked by Tuesday, although they can arrive at clerks' offices as late as April 13.

Wisconsin election officials said the high court's order left intact a provision of the lower-court order that no returns be reported until that day.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the coronavirus outbreak had caused a surge in absentee ballot requests and thousands of voters who requested them will not have received their ballots by Tuesday.

"The court's order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement," she wrote.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?