Voters at the polls in Milwaukee and Madison expressed frustration and trepidation about voting in person today amid the coronavirus pandemic, but largely appeared to be taking it in stride.
Several voters WisPolitics.com talked to had requested absentee ballots that hadn’t arrived in time to cast them, while some who received absentee ballots were skeptical about them being delivered in time to be counted. The latest update from the state Elections Commission this morning showed more than 9,000 absentee ballots had yet to be mailed.
Tammie Henderson, who voted at Washington High School in Milwaukee, said she was voting in person because her absentee ballot never arrived. She said she normally votes right near her house, but because the city consolidated polling places, she had to travel.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “It should have been postponed.”
Voters head to the polls today following a flurry of legal action the day before. Gov. Tony Evers sought to delay the election until June only to have the state Supreme Court overturn that order. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled absentee ballots had to be postmarked or hand-delivered by today in order to count after a federal judge had earlier ruled voters could turn them in as late as April 13.
Absentee ballots postmarked by today will still be counted so long as they’re received by April 13. But the results of Tuesday’s election won’t be known until then due to a federal ruling barring clerks from releasing the results until after the deadline for ballots to be received.
The latest update from the Elections Commission showed 9,388 absentee ballots that had been requested by Wisconsin voters had yet to be mailed, though there’s often a lag in reporting to the agency. Overall, 864,750 — more than two-thirds of the nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots — had been returned.
The Madison city clerk’s office said in a tweet late this afternoon that turnout as of 4 p.m. was 24.7 percent. That was down from 43.3 percent as of the same time in the April 2016 election, which also included a presidential primary.
City of Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht said at an 11 a.m. briefing that turnout was “robust” but he didn’t have figures available yet.
Albrecht said each polling location had roughly 30 members of the Wisconsin National Guard serving in various capacities, a total he said would have been sufficient to open more polling sites around the city.
But he said he was only made aware of the number of National Guard members who would be able to reinforce his Election Day staff late yesterday afternoon. At that point, Albrecht said, the city had already announced its polling locations.
“Had we had that information sooner, I absolutely think it could have influenced the number of voting centers in the city of Milwaukee,” he told reporters this afternoon.
State GOP Chair Andrew Hitt pinned the blame on local officials for long lines to vote in places such as Milwaukee and Green Bay considering the number of volunteers and National Guard members made available to communities around the state.
“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,” Hitt said.
Former Obama-era U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, in a statement said the images coming out of Wisconsin were “troubling” and called for changes to ensure safe voting in the November general election.
Milwaukee, which has a mayoral race and county exec contest on today’s ballot, had a record 203,898 absentee ballots requested for the spring election. By comparison, Milwaukee County voters cast 150,246 votes in last year’s spring election.
Despite the record requests for absentee ballots, some Milwaukee voting locations experienced long lines as the city consolidated 180 polling places into just five amid a shortage of poll workers.
At Washington High School in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, the line stretched for roughly 350 yards down the block adjacent to an athletic field and around the corner.
Most voters appeared to be standing about 6 feet apart, and many wore masks.
As voters waited in the 75-degree weather–quite warm for early April in Milwaukee–volunteers passed out homemade cloth masks and bottles of water. Some voters leaned against a chain-link fence for rest, while some brought folding chairs.
Voter Paul Porada said he was voting in person today because he didn’t trust voting absentee due to all of the changes leading up to the vote.
He said he wasn’t concerned about the coronavirus personally but was “more concerned about other people” and the risk of it spreading at the polls.
One voter in line at Washington High School wore signs reading “Risking my life to vote thanks to GOP” and “This is what voter suppression looks like.”
At Washington High and other voting locations in the city, voters also had the option of casting their ballots via drive-though. A poll worker told WisPolitics.com the option was primarily being used by those who would have difficulty standing in line for a long time.
Voting lines at Milwaukee’s South Division High School were relatively short compared to some of the other Milwaukee voting locations.
While voting didn’t take much more time than usual at South Division High School, some voters said they were annoyed by the extra time and effort required to travel to a voting location that is different and farther away from their regular location.
By late morning, some 2,000 had cast ballots, according to election supervisor Brad Hoeschen.
“We have no idea how many people are actually going to show up right now,” said Hoeschen. “The increased number of absentee ballots requested throughout the state is certainly going to skew the number of voters coming out today, as well as the fear of spreading the virus.”
Hoeschen also said election workers usually expect roughly a 50 percent voter turnout for each ward, but with the current situation and all of its nuances, he said they are likely to get roughly 30 percent to 35 percent voter turnout for each ward.
Hoeschen said they don’t have enough election workers to keep all of their voting booths open and sanitized throughout the day. Some of the booths close while workers take lunch breaks and reopen when the workers come back from lunch.
This election process is further complicated by the fact each ballot machine at South Division High School is counting ballots from multiple wards. Some machines are counting ballots from 10 different wards, according to Burt Hultman, a chief inspector at the South Division High School voting location.
“Everything is all messed up,” said Hultman. “We’re probably going to be here sorting ballots by ward until 10 o’clock tonight.”
Meanwhile in Madison, where there are many more polling places open, poll workers at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue told WisPolitics.com voters initially formed a line in the morning. But traffic slowed down and remained quite manageable.
Volunteer Miranda Sikora, 27, said progress at her station had been smooth and that “people seem to know what to do for the most part.”
She said this was her first time working the polls and that she joined because she’s “low risk” and wanted to help.
Voters entered the historical building through its front doors, but left through a back exit to avoid personal contact as much as possible. Traffic remained low through midday, with only a handful of voters arriving every few minutes.
A number of voters said they showed up in-person because their mail-in absentee ballots never came.
Laura Epstein said she didn’t feel safe voting today, but that she didn’t feel right about staying home either. She said she was “still holding out hope” that the U.S. Supreme Court would change its ruling and extend the election.
“I’m particularly angry that I had to come here and do this,” she said. “No, I don’t feel safe. I would so much rather have waited for my absentee ballot, which I requested two weeks ago, but I haven’t got it.”
Epstein said the act of voting almost felt like a typical election, “if you could ignore the fact that everybody was in masks.”
Only 66 of Madison’s typical 92 poll stations are open today due to a shortage of workers.
The Madison Central Library had two stations open, one for in-person voting and one for absentee drop-offs. Workers set up blue portable toilets and a handwashing station outside the in-person entrance next to a large “Vote Here” sign.
Many of the location’s poll workers were also first-time, younger volunteers.
Jessica Miyake, 25, said she “was once called a bartender,” but now that she’s unemployed from the stay-at-home order she felt she had the time to help work the polls.
Miyake said she was originally assigned to handle curbside voting for those who for safety reasons couldn’t enter the station. But she said only two people showed up in her shift.
A mild but consistent flow of voters walked past her outside to deliver their absentee ballots in the library’s dropbox.
“It’s mostly absentee ballots and it’s been pretty good so far,” Miyake said. “I think for the most part people are maintaining their distance.”
On Madison’s east side, voters lined up in their cars to drop off their ballots at a library dropbox.
Brenna Sullivan, 45, said she always votes in person, but got an absentee ballot this year due to concerns over COVID-19. She requested a ballot a week ago and received it Saturday. After seeing the flurry of court action yesterday, she decided to drop off her ballot in person.
“I didn’t want to mail it, because I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I wanted my vote to count,” she said.