Wisconsin is the first state to hold a major election with in-person voting despite stay-at-home orders for Americans protecting themselves from the coronavirus.
Polls are set to open at 8 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Lines could be unusually long because of a lack of poll workers, and social distancing is a concern.
The state’s elections commission has ordered municipal clerks not to release any results until April 13, in compliance with a federal court ruling.
Wisconsin Democrats wanted to extend absentee voting and even postpone the election altogether, but Republicans successfully blocked both in court. As a result, Democratic turnout is likely to be depressed because of the virus and the deadlines for absentee voting. A crucial seat on the State Supreme Court is on the ballot.
How many people will actually vote?
MILWAUKEE — Heading into Tuesday’s elections, the questions among Democratic and Republican operatives were clear: How many people will actually vote? Will the results be trusted? And will voters and poll workers fall ill?
The election is proceeding despite the advice of public health professionals who say the state’s leaders are putting residents at risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. But the voting turned into a bitter partisan dispute between the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and Republican lawmakers, culminating in two decisions on Monday by the State Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court that favored the Republicans.
The legal back-and-forth has also caused confusion and logistical chaos among state election clerks, with some poll workers refusing to participate in Tuesday’s election. Other municipalities have drastically cut back or eliminated in-person voting options. The chair of the state Democratic Party has pledged not to mobilize voters on Tuesday and has called on the state Republican Party to do the same.
Wisconsin awards 77 pledged delegates in the Democratic presidential primary, and could be another step toward Mr. Biden’s knocking Mr. Sanders out the race. Mr. Sanders had called on the state to delay its election, citing the coronavirus concerns, but he still faces pressure from allies and Democratic operatives who are ready to see him concede and rally behind Mr. Biden, who leads in pledged delegates and raw votes.
Wisconsin is a wildly important state in the general election, and often cited as a bellwether in the national Electoral College. Outside the presidential primary, voters will weigh the State Supreme Court race and a Democratic challenger to Milwaukee’s mayor, also a Democrat.
Many polling sites have closed, and long lines are expected.
Wisconsin has often been at the center of the country’s fights about voting access and accusations of voter suppression. However, because of the pandemic, most poll observers are expecting huge lines simply because of how few places there will be to vote.
In Milwaukee, where election workers expect more than 50,000 voters, the number of polling locations has been drastically reduced — from more than 180 to just five. Other municipalities are having all voters go to one location and encouraging curbside pickup of ballots.
In Milwaukee’s early voting, which took place last week in a “drive-through” fashion, some residents waited more than 80 minutes to fill out a ballot. Some experts think the waiting time could be more than double that on Tuesday.
Republicans have played down the danger to public health, saying that the threat of long lines during the pandemic was overblown. One Republican county chair, Jim Miller of Sawyer County, said the process would be similar to people picking up food to eat during the state’s stay-at-home order.
“If you can go out and get fast food, you can go vote curbside,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s the same procedure.”
Partisan brawling and a logistical tangle have led to chaos.
A series of official orders and court rulings whipsawed the public in the final days before Tuesday’s elections.
Now the municipal and county clerks who oversee voting in Wisconsin have to conduct a presidential primary, a critical State Supreme Court election and contests for more than 3,900 local offices amid a pandemic and the governor’s order for residents to stay in their homes.
It adds up to an election that became a logistical nightmare before the Election Day polls opened.
Like so much else in Wisconsin over the last decade, the state’s coronavirus response and opinions about moving the election broke along partisan lines.
Democrats, aiming to expand turnout especially in the state’s largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, sought to expand mail voting and delay the election until June. Republicans, wary of affording new powers to a Democratic governor and content with suppressing turnout in urban centers where the coronavirus has struck hardest, refused to entertain proposals for relief.
“Thousands will wake up and have to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe,” Governor Evers said after the State Supreme Court ruling on Monday.
But Dean Knudson, a Republican former state legislator who is chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said during a lengthy online session late Monday that voters who wished to participate in Tuesday’s contest would have no recourse but to venture to the polls — even if they had requested but had not yet received an absentee ballot.
“If they haven’t got their ballot in the mail,” he said, “they are going to have to go to the polling place tomorrow.”
Poll workers across the state are terrified, and thousands say they won’t show up.
Forging ahead thrusts thousands of clerks and poll workers, many of them older or with health conditions, onto the pandemic’s front lines.
As a result, thousands of poll workers have said they won’t show up, leading to major reductions in the number of polling sites, particularly in cities like Milwaukee. In Green Bay, there are usually about 31 polling locations, but on Tuesday there will just be two. Though roughly 2,400 National Guardsmen were being trained as poll workers as late as Monday, it still won’t come close to the more than 7,000 who have already said they cannot work.
If there is a bright spot for Democrats, it will be in deeply blue Madison, where the mayor said more than two-thirds of the city’s polling locations would be open on Tuesday.
Polls will close at 9 p.m. Eastern, but that’s unlikely to be the end of the elections.
Though voting may end on Tuesday night, there will most likely be a new round of lawsuits challenging both the results and the disenfranchisement of many voters. Many allied groups in Wisconsin were already gathering accounts of voters unable to get a ballot or vote in anticipation of litigation.
One story shared from a local lawyer involved a pregnant health-care worker who had the coronavirus and hadn’t received her absentee ballot yet. Because she could not vote in person, she could not vote at all.
It’s been a messy, confusing and chaotic march toward the Wisconsin primary. And the uncertainty is likely to continue.