MADISON, Wis. – The decision to forge ahead with Wisconsin's election amid a pandemic has stirred fears about a possible spike in the state's coronavirus cases in the face of stay-at-home orders and efforts to limit contact with others.
Public health experts, elected officials, poll workers and many voters pushed to delay the election. After the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to cancel in-person voting, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order to do so. But the state Supreme Cour t, less than 24 hours before voting was to begin, blocked the order.
Voters who didn't get absentee ballots were forced to choose Tuesday between voting in person or staying at home to avoid possible exposure to the coronavirus. Thousands waited in line in Milwaukee, and long waits were reported in Green Bay. Voters and poll workers wore masks and gloves. Volunteers sat behind Plexiglass shields as they handed voters their ballots.
“From a public health perspective, this was counter to all good scientific evidence and advice right now for how to continue to curb the pandemic from having serious impacts in the state,” said Kristen Malecki, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
“The fact that politics interfered with sound judgment and jeopardized public safety is something that should not be ignored.”
Caleb Andersen, 40, said he was concerned that holding the election would wipe out any progress Wisconsin had made in slowing the spread of the virus. Andersen worked at one of Milwaukee’s five polling places, where he said 3,800 people voted. He said he feels certain he was exposed despite all efforts at safety.
Andersen blamed Republicans.
“I don’t see them as a political party as much as I see them as a death cult,” he said. “That is not hyperbole. I am actually struggling to consider them as human. I am shaking with rage right now.”
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos donned a mask, gloves and protective gown to work at the polls on Tuesday. Images and video of him in the protective gear, proclaiming that it was safe for people to vote, drew criticism.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to flatten this curve,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, said Wednesday. More than half of the state’s 99 coronavirus deaths so far have been in Milwaukee.
“The question now is, by having mass gatherings throughout the state of Wisconsin, have we caused more lives to be lost, have we caused more people to be sick?” Barrett said.
Many people who showed up Tuesday to vote in person said they did so only because they had requested but not received an absentee ballot. It wasn’t clear how many people fell into that category, but election officials were overmatched by a record-high 1.3 million requests for such ballots in the lead-up to the election. There were also questions about whether U.S. Postal Service had been slow to deliver some ballots or outright mishandled them.
Wisconsin’s top elections official, Meagan Wolfe, said the elections commission was working with the U.S. Postal Service to locate absentee ballots that never made it to voters, including three bins worth in the Oshkosh and Appleton area, but there was likely no recourse for them given that the deadline to return ballots had passed.
Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht called for the Postal Service to launch an official investigation on missing absentee ballots in Milwaukee that were issued and mailed around March 22 and March 23.
Fox Point Village Administrator Scott Botcher said postal workers began returning undelivered absentee ballots to the village about three weeks before Tuesday’s election with no explanation beyond that it might have been a sorting problem in downtown Milwaukee’s post office.
Bob Sheehan, a Postal Service spokesman, said it was looking into the missing ballots and would act as quickly as possible.
Ellie Bradish, 40, and her husband Dan Bullock, 40, waited with masks on for about three hours to vote in Milwaukee after their absentee ballots never arrived.
“They clearly knew this was going to be dangerous,” Bradish said. “I think and a lot of other people think the safer-at-home order is restarted. This restarts the clock for us. And it’s a shame, I thought we were doing a really good job. And now I’m scared of what’s going to happen.”
Associated Press writers Doug Glass and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis; Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin; and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.