MILWAUKEE — After days of legal wrangling, partisan mudslinging and grave warnings from public health professionals, Wisconsin forged ahead with its primary elections on Tuesday, the first state to hold in-person voting during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of Wisconsin residents, forced to weigh the risks to their health against their willingness to exercise the right to vote, arrived before polls opened at 7 a.m., casting ballots for the national Democratic presidential primary and several contests between Republicans and Democrats in major state and local races.
In early voting Tuesday, some poll workers wore makeshift hazmat suits, more reminiscent of health care professionals than electoral volunteers. Most voters came prepared with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. Many said they were racked with fear.
“They say they don’t want you to get sick, but then they send you out here in the damn crowd,” said Lawrence Johnson, a 70-year-old cleaning worker in line to vote at Riverside High School. “There are people like me who are handicap — we have no business doing all this just to vote.”
At Washington High School on the city’s North Side, a woman carried with her a homemade sign that read “This Is Ridiculous.”
Despite their trepidation, voters who showed up at polling locations — there were only five in Milwaukee, compared with the typical 180 — said that this was their day to be heard. Some Democrats spoke of a sense of defiance to their actions, a determination to challenge the state Republicans who refused to move the election date even after requests from public health professionals.
Ellie Bradish and Dan Bullock, both 40, waited with masks covering their faces for more than two hours. As health care professionals, they said the scene was distressing, to see so many people gathered against the public health advice.
“It feels bad to have to choose between your personal safety and your right to vote,” Mr. Bullock said. “But you have to be heard, especially if there’s people who are trying to minimize you.”
Chris Wheeler, an appliance repairman, said he thought about not voting, but since he’s been working a high-risk job anyway to sustain his income, he decided he might as well “exercise my constitutional right.”
“It’s just irresponsible,” said Mr. Wheeler, who is 58. “I’ve been in places where people are infected, I’ve been in hospitals, it’s just my reality right now. It is what it is.”
Officials in state after state have postponed in-person voting in the last month, grinding the Democratic primary to a halt as the impact of coronavirus has disrupted every aspect of American life. However, in Wisconsin, pleas from state Democrats to delay voting were ignored by the Republican leaders in the Legislature, who said moving the election was too drastic a measure and an infringement on personal liberty.
Republicans in particular expressed outrage when the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, proposed an expanded absentee ballot voting system that would mail a ballot to the state’s millions of registered voters. Republicans also successfully blocked an executive order by Mr. Evers on Monday to use emergency powers to delay the election, after a state Supreme Court that is in conservative control reversed Mr. Evers’s order.
The consequence is an election Tuesday that has been criticized as both unsafe and illegitimate. National figures like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have called for it to be delayed, and the leaders for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin — which is seeking to win a vital state Supreme Court seat — said it could not encourage people to vote in good faith.
Erin Baldeon Fischer, a 32-year-old gradudate student, said she saw the line at her Milwaukee polling place this morning and decided the health risk may be too great.
“I have a 9-month-old; I’m not sure I feel comfortable being there with an infant at home,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s a responsible decision as a mother.”
Ms. Fischer said several friends and colleagues had made similar decisions.
“A co-worker was in tears,” she said. “This is the first election she’s been eligible for that she won’t be voting in. She has no one to watch her daughter, and she obviously won’t bring her to the polls.”
Tuesday morning in Milwaukee, the state’s most populous city and the Democratic power base of the state, voting logistics were a categorical nightmare. The city cut more than 170 polling locations ahead of Tuesday’s elections citing health concerns, and lines at Riverside High School — one of the five places city residents could cast a ballot — snaked for about four blocks.
Throughout the city, residents sought to help one another stay safe and upbeat. One house opposite Riverside High School blared a playlist of James Brown, Bill Withers and other soul artists to keep the waiting voters energized. State Representative David Bowen, a Democrat in Milwaukee who contracted coronavirus but has recovered, picked up absentee ballots from sick residents and delivered them to the post office.
Breana Stephens, a 29-year-old teacher, traveled to the school on her own to pass out Clorox wipes, fresh pens and gloves for those in need.
“Everybody is really on edge, and you can sense that,” said Ms. Stephens, who voted with an absentee ballot more than a month ago. “People are worried and anxious and not in the best of spirits. As a person with some free time, I wanted to do what I can.”
The voting process could also highlight the urban-rural divide in Wisconsin, as residents of non-Milwaukee areas reported fewer interruptions in the early hours of Election Day. In communities like Beloit and Brookfield, more drive-through voting options were available, and the elimination of some polling places was likely to have less of an effect.
In Brookfield, a city in nearby Waukesha County, one resident said his polling location was adequately staffed, had good social distancing and was relatively easy to navigate.
“Our kids are voting in Milwaukee and they’re definitely waiting longer than we did,” said Bruce Campbell, who is 65. “You can feel the blue county, red county dynamics. It’s difficult to watch.”
The differences added to the sense of grievance felt among some Milwaukee voters. They said they believed that the city’s racial makeup, abundance of Democrats and areas of high poverty made Republicans less willing to care about the health risks. Like other cities around the country, Milwaukee has also been more acutely affected by coronavirus than the more rural parts of the state; it has a majority of the state’s confirmed cases and deaths — particularly among the city’s black population.
Clarence Carter, 70, said he was voting in-person Tuesday because he filed for an absentee ballot weeks ago but did not receive it. His wife has health issues and couldn’t stand in the line, he said.
“The polling place next to my house closed down, so I’m here,” Mr. Carter said. “I’m just disappointed. This is really crazy.”
So why vote?
“It’s the ballot or the bullet,” he said, quoting the famous speech by Malcolm X.
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