Amid the global coronavirus outbreak and over the objections of a governor who tried to stop in-person voting at the last minute, Wisconsin held its election Tuesday for the Democratic presidential nomination, the state Supreme Court and several local offices. We won’t have actual results until Monday at the earliest, but at this point, we do know that the election experienced a number of setbacks.
Across the state, a shortage of poll workers led to the closure and consolidation of many polling places, which resulted in extremely long lines on Election Day. For example, Milwaukee — a city of almost 600,000 people — had just five polling places open (in normal circumstances, it would have 180 polling places). As a result, wait times in Milwaukee averaged an hour and a half to two hours, with some voters waiting as long as two and a half hours to cast their ballots. In Green Bay, a city of 105,000 that downsized from 31 polling places to just two, some voters waited nearly three hours. Long lines were also reported in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, which was forced to consolidate to one polling place for its population of 70,000. But in cities where fewer polling places closed, there seemed to be fewer hiccups. For example, Madison (a city less than half Milwaukee’s size) kept 66 polling places open (compared with 92 normally), and there were no major reports of long lines.
Everywhere, though, election officials took extraordinary measures to keep voters safe. Plexiglass barriers were erected at many polling places to separate poll workers from voters. And in Fitchburg, a suburb of Madison, poll workers were instructed to wipe down voting equipment every 15 minutes. In the small city of Lake Mills, voter Jonathan McLaughlin told FiveThirtyEight he was given hand sanitizer on his way into the polling place, and each voter was given a fresh Bic pen with which to vote (they were told to either keep it or throw it away when they were done). And according to Kelly Westlund, who was working the polls in Ashland, a city of 8,000 in northern Wisconsin, she and her team sanitized their hands and the voting equipment regularly and made sure voters kept at least 6 feet apart. All the poll workers in Ashland were also provided with masks from local hat manufacturer Stormy Kromer.
Some jurisdictions also offered curbside (a.k.a. drive-through) voting, where voters stayed in their car. But not everyone felt this was safer. Charles Minnich, who voted curbside on Tuesday morning in Beloit (on the Illinois border), told FiveThirtyEight that the unorthodox setup seemed unrehearsed, and many of the poll workers he saw weren’t wearing any personal protective equipment. “People seemed confused by the whole process, on both sides of the clipboard,” he said. “People are going to get sick and probably die from this.”
Plenty of voters (1,287,764, at last count) attempted to avoid the inconvenience and dangers of in-person voting by voting absentee — but they weren’t immune from problems either. Because local election officials have been overwhelmed by the number of absentee-ballot requests, there was a backlog in sending them out — with the result that, as of Tuesday, many voters still had not received absentee ballots that they requested even weeks in advance. The Milwaukee Election Commission alone received hundreds of phone calls from voters who said their absentee ballots never arrived.
This might not have been a problem either had the U.S. Supreme Court not ruled late on Monday that absentee ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday, April 7, in order to count. (Previously, a federal district judge had decreed that ballots would count as long as they were received by April 13, even if they were postmarked after Election Day.) But the Supreme Court’s decision essentially forced voters who had not yet received their ballots to either brave the in-person polling places on Tuesday or abstain from voting altogether.
Milwaukee voter Ericka Tucker told FiveThirtyEight that she requested an absentee ballot over three weeks ago and just received it on Monday — only to discover the city had sent her the wrong ballot. (It was for a different ward from the one she lives in and therefore featured the wrong local elections.) Tucker said she was loath to vote in person because she has been experiencing cold symptoms (although she does not think she has COVID-19), but she felt that the election for state Supreme Court was too important to sit out. Luckily, her polling place offered a special drive-through voting line for sick people and she was able to cast a ballot safely.
At the same time, however, a record number of Wisconsinites were able to successfully cast their absentee ballots. As of Tuesday evening, 990,129 absentee ballots had been returned statewide — even more than the 819,316 that were counted in the 2016 general election, which was likely the most absentee ballots ever cast in state history. And although overall turnout numbers aren’t yet available, it’s likely that significantly more Wisconsin voters decided to vote absentee than in-person — remarkable in a state where only 10 percent of ballots were cast absentee in the 2016 presidential primary. In the City of Milwaukee alone, 56,489 absentee ballots were cast (and thousands more could still be in transit1) compared with just 18,803 people who voted in person.
However, this still points to a steep dropoff in voter turnout in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin’s 2016 spring election and presidential primary, Milwaukee cast 167,765 ballots, whereas now only 75,292 ballots have been cast. We don’t yet know what turnout was like in other corners of Wisconsin, but it’s possible there were dramatic disparities in voter access across the state, and that could end up affecting the outcome of the election.