A Week Late, Wisconsin’s Tumultuous Primary Produces a Winner

A week after Wisconsin held an election besieged by legal wrangling and overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, officials revealed the results on Monday, with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. easily capturing the Democratic vote over Senator Bernie Sanders.

The Wisconsin vote, held at in-person polling sites last Tuesday after an 11th-hour court ruling that voting should proceed despite the risks of the coronavirus, came amid a pitched outcry from Democrats in the state and across the country that Republicans were making Wisconsinites choose between imperiling their health and exercising their constitutional right to vote.

Mr. Biden’s victory over Mr. Sanders, who ended his presidential campaign the morning after Wisconsin voted and endorsed Mr. Biden Monday afternoon, was overshadowed by the state Supreme Court race between the conservative incumbent, Daniel Kelly, and his liberal challenger, Jill Karofsky, a state circuit court judge from Dane County, which includes Wisconsin’s liberal capital of Madison.

Though officially nonpartisan, Wisconsin’s springtime high court elections have in the last two decades become vehicles to test voter enthusiasm ahead of the November general elections.

The court race took on national significance for both parties. If re-elected Mr. Kelly, who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Scott Walker, was poised to be the swing vote on a pending decision on whether to purge more than 200,000 people from Wisconsin’s voter rolls ahead of what is expected to be a tight presidential contest in the state. President Trump three times tweeted his support for Mr. Kelly, including an Election Day missive urging supporters to “get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly.”

The winner of the race will receive a 10-year term.

Bracing for Mr. Kelly to win, Democrats spent the hours before results were released Monday afternoon making the case the Wisconsin contest was illegitimate.

“It was voter suppression on steroids,” said Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “They tried to steal this election in Wisconsin and we’ll see what happens, but our resolve to see that people get to vote in Wisconsin and across this country is unshakable.”

Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said it is certain that many lawsuits will be filed by voters who were unable to cast absentee ballots, or by candidates in the nearly 4,000 local races that were on the state’s ballot. There are at least eight pending lawsuits seeking partial revotes of the election, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“It’s hard to imagine none of those candidates don’t wind up looking for legal recourse,” Mr. Wikler said Monday.

Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, have defended holding an in-person election amid the pandemic. Robin Vos, the state Assembly speaker who rejected the governor’s requests to postpone the election, worked as a polling inspector while wearing full protective equipment last week. “You are incredibly safe to go out,” he said.

The results follow weeks of acrimonious wrangling between Democrats and Republicans in the state; citing the risks from coronavirus, Democrats wanted to postpone the election like most of the other states with April primaries did. But Wisconsin law forbade Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, from changing the election date without the consent of the Republican-controlled legislature, which wanted the election to proceed. Republicans also resisted Mr. Evers’s attempts to relax the state’s strict rules requiring voters to upload a copy of a valid identification card to request and receive a mail ballot.

When Mr. Evers invoked emergency powers the day before the election postponing it until June, the legislature appealed to the State Supreme Court, which blocked Mr. Evers from doing so.

Major efforts by both parties to get their voters to request ballots led to the largest absentee turnout in the state’s history — more than 1 million votes by mail, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which said the number is already likely higher and will rise as all the votes are counted.

While images from Wisconsin’s Election Day focused on hourslong lines outside the five polling places that remained open in Milwaukee — down from 180 that had been planned — turnout by mail was higher in the state’s two largest liberal counties relative to the rest of the state than it was during the 2019 state Supreme Court election, which was decided by just 6,000 votes.

Still, voters across the state reported problems receiving and returning absentee ballots. More than 11,600 voters requested an absentee ballot and were never sent one and more than 185,000 ballots were sent to voters but not returned, according to data from the commission, a bipartisan agency run by a Republican appointee of the state legislature.

In addition, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mail ballots that arrived after Election Day must have a postmark of Election Day or earlier, a requirement that proved instantly problematic when some ballots arrived in the mail at municipal clerks’ offices with no postmark at all. The Milwaukee Election Commission voted Monday to accept 390 ballots that were not postmarked, not postmarked with a date or carried an illegible postmark.

Mr. Biden’s Wisconsin victory over Mr. Sanders was anticlimactic marker on the 2020 Democratic primary calendar campaign. Four years ago, Mr. Sanders won a commanding victory over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, carrying all but one of the state’s counties en route to a 13-point victory.

But once Mr. Biden accumulated a nearly insurmountable delegate advantage, and with the coronavirus pandemic paralyzing the country, even Mr. Sanders’s most ardent Wisconsin supporters found themselves wanting the presidential contest to be over.

“His support has been affected by people’s desire for security and predictability in this time of crisis and fear,” Beverly Wickstrom, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Eau Claire County, said before the Wisconsin vote. “In this environment, his message of revolution is not resonant.”

Now with Mr. Sanders out of the race and having endorsed Mr. Biden, the only drama left in the Wisconsin primary was how many of Wisconsin’s 77 delegates Mr. Sanders would accrue. Some in the Sanders progressive coalition still hope to influence the party’s platform and rules at the convention, but that can only happen if Sanders has enough delegates to demand votes on key issues.

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