It was an election day for the history books, unprecedented and unimaginable.
After Gov. Tony Evers tried to delay it, and the state Supreme Court declared the vote must go on, Wisconsinites went to the polls in Tuesday’s spring election and cast ballots carefully, deliberately and defiantly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“People died for my right to vote, so if I have to take a risk to vote that’s what I have to do,” said Michael Claus, 66, who was among several hundred people waiting in an early morning line to vote at Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School.
Across the state, in schools, churches and town halls, poll workers risked their health to make sure democracy worked. Members of the National Guard also pitched in.
In Milwaukee, where only five polling sites were open, the workers donned face masks and rubber gloves, handed out black pens to voters, wiped surfaces clean and kept the lines moving as best they could even as the state remained under a safer-at-home order.
Hand sanitizer was a must.
And votes won’t be counted until Monday, another twist in the latest chapter in this only-in-Wisconsin political story.
The main contests: the state Supreme Court race between Justice Daniel Kelly and Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky, and the Democratic presidential primary.
James Grow, 33, of Milwaukee, who wore a painter’s face mask for protection, waited outside Riverside High to vote and said: “I don’t feel that I’m risking my life, but it’s definitely different. Everyone is properly practicing social distancing.”
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Outside Milwaukee’s Washington High School, where she waited in a line for two hours, Jennifer Taff held up a sign: “This is ridiculous.”
“I’m disgusted. I requested an absentee ballot almost three weeks ago and never got it. I have a father dying from lung disease and I have to risk my life and his just to exercise my right to vote,” she said.
There were long lines in Milwaukee and shorter lines elsewhere, as well as a palpable sense of frustration.
“We have moved forward with an election, but we have not moved forward with democracy in the state of Wisconsin,” said Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.
President Donald Trump weighed in during his daily briefing Tuesday and accused Wisconsin Democrats of wanting to move the election only after he endorsed Daniel Kelly for Supreme Court.
“As soon as I endorsed him, the Wisconsin Democrats said let’s move the election,” Trump said.
Asked about reports of long lines to vote in Wisconsin and about voters who may get sick due to a lack of social distancing, Trump put the focus on Evers.
“Ask him, that’s his problem. He should be doing it. Again, some governors fail, and I won’t let them fail because when they fail, I’ll help, but that’s run by Democrats right now,” Trump said.
“Now I understand there are lines that go back a long way, I hope they’re going to vote for Justice Kelly,” he added.
In a statement, Evers said: “I listened when the president talked about the serious and tragic reality of this virus, and he said there will be a lot of death in the coming weeks. I don’t pay any attention to who the president endorses and I don’t make endorsements in nonpartisan elections.
“Frankly, my focus right now is on keeping the people of this state safe, and that’s why I issued an executive order to extend Wisconsin’s election date and make sure everyone could vote safely from home.”
Clerks this year faced a task they’ve never had before: sending 1.3 million ballots by mail, finding workers willing to risk their health on election day, and keeping everyone safe from a deadly virus.
But because of that crush of requests to vote by mail, many Wisconsin voters were still waiting to receive their ballot on election day, including Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who ended up voting in person at South Division High School.
At least 50 people have contacted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in recent days reporting issues getting their ballots by mail as clerks became overwhelmed with requests. Some say clerks don’t even have a record of voters’ ballot requests.
With last-minute rules changes, voters had to weigh going to the polls.
Dale Stoeber lives alone in Kenosha and is 71 — too old to vote in person and not risk developing life-threatening complications if he catches the virus. But that’s what he had to do after not being able to get a witness’ signature on the ballot.
“I have no choice but to vote in person, with much apprehension,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “Lord help the state if it is proven down the line that this virus spreads more widely.”
Jason Pelsis, 40, said he requested a ballot online March 19 and didn’t realize he hadn’t received it until Friday.
When he called the Wauwatosa Clerk’s Office, he was told his request had been lost. Pelsis said he tried to show the clerk his web browser history as proof, but it wasn’t accepted, he said.
“I would say I have it better than most people. But I don’t have time to think to go back to a state website for the heck of it to monitor the status of something I thought was completed,” Pelsis said.
In the Village of Palmyra, where a key school board race was on the ballot, there was a different vibe than usual at the polls, said Clerk/Treasurer Laurie Mueller.
“There’s not a lot of visiting and chit-chatting,” she said. “It’s pretty much come in and do your business and move on, which is good. We don’t want people hanging out.”
The City of Brookfield set up a single polling place in the 18,000-square-foot ballroom at Brookfield Conference Center. Social distancing was enforced with tape placed in 6-foot increments on the ground.
“It’s going about as well as can be expected for this crazy, crazy election,” Brookfield Clerk Kelly Michaels said.
In Ozaukee County, several polling places reported steady, if slightly lighter turnout. About half the voters were observed wearing masks at a half dozen polling places.
The City of Mequon stationed a pair of public works employees at the entrances to every one of the city’s eight polling sites, just to remind voters to space out and limit entry if the sites got crowded.
At Lumen Christi Catholic Church, police auxiliary officers were checking in and said they would be visiting all the sites all day.
Lance Awsumb donned a mask before he entered to vote. Afterward, he said he had been watching the news most of Monday to find out if the election would be on or off, but finally gave up.
“I just checked this morning. When I saw it was on, I came out,” he said. He said he didn’t really have a strong feeling either way on whether the election should have been postponed or held entirely by mail.
Outside the Cedarburg Community Center, the city’s sole polling spot, Mayor Mike O’Keefe was helping answer voter questions as some stood in a spaced-out line waiting to enter.
He and chief election official Donna Steffens agreed the lines had been longer during early voting at next-door City Hall over the prior two weeks.
Poll workers in Madison wore face masks, face shields and rubber gloves as they directed people to voting booths and kept them 6 feet apart from each other in line.
At the Hawthorne Library, Ben Shinners said he thought about staying away from the polls for safety reasons but decided to vote because he wants to see change. He said Gov. Tony Evers and other officials should have done more sooner to try to delay the election.
“I’m disappointed that our governor didn’t see earlier that he should have canceled this. I’m also disappointed that the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not … put people first,” he said. “It’s hard for me to believe in our political system right now just because I really feel, especially in Wisconsin, it’s all just partisan stuff. And I don’t think the voters are really taken into account at all.”
William Gilomen wore a red bandanna around his face and timed his visit to the library in the afternoon to avoid the morning and evening rushes. He said he believed the city took precautions that kept voters safe.
“I think it went fine,” he said as he rubbed his hands with sanitizer. “I didn’t feel any threats or danger myself. It went very smooth. I think it took about three minutes.”
At Green Bay West High School, Terry Sipes was one of the early arrivals. She said she had attempted to vote by mail, but her absentee ballot did not arrive in time. She woke up early, checked on the status of the election, found her polling place and then headed out to vote.
“First of all, there is no way I would not vote today. No way,” Sipes said. “Just the fact that we have the right to vote and if we don’t exercise that right to vote, we’re screwed as a country.”
Journal Sentinel reporters Bruce Vielmetti, Ricardo Torres, Rory Linnane, Mike De Sisti, Patricia McKnight, Meg Jones, Laura Schulte, Patrick Marley, Evan Casey and Robert Dohr and USA TODAY-Wisconsin network reporter Karl Ebert and USA TODAY reporter Jeanine Santucci contributed to this article.
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