The critical swing state that had a disastrous April primary endures a divisive election with long lines at the polls and battles in the courts — all amid a raging coronavirus outbreak. Yet voter turnout has been surging.
Becky Eggen knew she would be busy when she started her new job as Hudson City Clerk in January. Wisconsin had been critical to electing Donald Trump president in 2016, and she knew the 2020 race would likely be contentious.
But she never expected a year like this.
Eggen and the other 1,850 municipal clerks in the state have been forced to hold two statewide elections during the coronavirus pandemic. Worries over the virus prompted Democrats to scale back their national convention in Milwaukee. And the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha set off waves of protests and counter protests over racism in the criminal justice system.
Hudson is a western Wisconsin city of about 14,000 people that borders Minnesota. Eggen said she expected to be swamped because of the election, “but throwing Covid on top of it, I had no idea [that would happen],” she said. “It’s been a wild ride.”
The ride isn’t over. Wisconsin might again swing the presidential election, and voters are casting their ballots in record numbers, in person and through the mail. Election administrators are working with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure ballots are delivered and planning with police in case right-wing groups show up at polling locations to intimidate voters.
At the same time, the state is facing one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country, with a major surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks. Wisconsin has averaged 4,230 new coronavirus cases per day over the past week, and it has the third-highest rate of new cases in the country behind only North and South Dakota.
The coronavirus spike has forced election administrators to plan for worst-case scenarios. “If one of us, God forbid, gets sick, we’re all in close contact with each other,” said David Godek, the city clerk-treasurer in Janesville. “I would lose all of those people to quarantine, whether they were sick or not, a week before the election. Then what’s the plan?” Godek said he divided his staff into two separate groups to prevent a potential virus exposure from contaminating everyone.
The U.S. Supreme Court added more uncertainty for Wisconsin voters a week before Election Day. The High Court sided with President Trump in ruling that no ballots can be accepted after 8 p.m. on Election Day. The decision was a blow to Democrats and voting rights groups who argued that ballots postmarked on or before Election Day but arrive in the following days should be counted.
The court’s ruling came as on-time delivery for first-class mail has declined this month in the postal districts serving Wisconsin, according to data from the U.S. Postal Service. In a two-week stretch in mid-October, the district serving western Wisconsin saw on-time delivery drop five percentage points, from 87 percent to 82. Election officials said ballots mailed less than a week before Election Day were unlikely to arrive in time.
The ruling may not have much impact on the election outcome, though. More than 80 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by the state’s voters have already been returned, according to data from the Wisconsin Election Commission. That left 223,135 mail ballots outstanding as of Oct. 30, according to an APM Reports analysis. A large majority of those ballots — 135,552 — come from counties that voted for Trump in 2016.
Voters who don’t return mailed ballots won’t necessarily be shut out. Wisconsin law allows voters to discard their mail ballot and cast one in person instead. And a number of polls have shown that most Trump voters plan to cast ballots on Election Day. After the Supreme Court decision, election officials rushed to remind voters not to mail their ballots in the final days of the election and to vote in person instead.
As of Oct. 29, nearly 1.2 million Wisconsinites voted by mail, according to data from the Wisconsin Election Commission. The dramatic increase in mail-in voting has forced election administrators to divert staff to review mailed ballots to prevent unnecessary rejections. They also need workers for the time-consuming effort of processing those ballots on Election Day; state law prevents officials from counting ballots sooner.
After weeks of news stories about postal delays, many opted to vote early in person because they didn’t trust the mail. “As we get closer and closer to election, I can see that there’s just more to worry about,” said Robert Holloman of Racine, who was one of the more than 540,000 Wisconsinites who cast ballots in person in the first 10 days of voting. “I just thought this would be safer because I want to make sure my vote counts.”
Despite the many challenges, Wisconsin officials say they’re confident the election will run smoothly. They’re working to avoid the problems that plagued the state in April. The messy primary was one of the first during the national lockdown. It resulted in thousands of ballots lost in the mail, long lines at polling places and slightly more than 23,000 rejected mail-in ballots. Most of those ballot rejections were a result of a voter missing a line on the ballot envelope.
Reporters for APM Reports fanned out across Wisconsin in the first week of early voting to see how the swing state was handling its pandemic election.
Voters had to confront their fears of the Covid-19 outbreak, doubts about election integrity repeated by President Trump, and long lines at polling locations in the state’s biggest cities.
Still, they were turning out in record numbers. With five days until Election Day, 48.5 percent of registered voters had already cast ballots. Supporters of both parties said that this election is too important to sit out, and that nothing — not the pandemic, not slow mail, not long lines — would stop them from casting a ballot.
A stream of cars, RVs and even a school bus outfitted with a basketball rim filled the parking lot of a 7-Eleven outside Kenosha a little after midnight. It was Tuesday, Oct. 20, the first hours of the first day of in-person voting in Wisconsin, and social justice activists had planned a get-out-the vote march.
Organizers passed out backpacks full of supplies for the people who would walk the 30 miles from Kenosha, through Racine and to Milwaukee to highlight demands for justice in cases of police violence and to encourage early voting.
“We are going to march and wake up everybody in Milwaukee and get them out to vote today,” said Justin Blake, whose nephew Jacob Blake was shot by a Kenosha Police Officer in late August. “Voting is crucial.” The shooting set off protests in the city that gained national attention in part because of the presence of armed civilian patrols. Prosecutors have charged 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter of President Trump, with multiple homicide counts for a shooting that killed two people and seriously injured another during the protests.
After a traumatic summer, organizers of the march wanted people to translate their anger over police shootings into political action. “I want you to make sure you get on your phones. I want you to call anybody you know in Racine, let them know we’re coming and join the train,” said Gregory Bennett Jr., who was handing out reflective bands. “We’re going to break systemic racism. We’re going to fight for social justice, and we’re going to make sure we educate everybody on voting early.”
Marchers and the caravan then lined up behind a police escort and began the journey north toward Racine.
Hours later, a different parking lot in Kenosha was filling up with cars in line for drive-through voting. Voters on foot also lined up outside Kenosha City Hall, the city’s single early voting site, before the doors opened at 8 a.m. It was the beginning of a large early turnout. In a city with about 51,000 registered voters, 1,126 people cast ballots on that first day.
“I hate what happened here,” Therese Principe said, as she waited in line and reflected on the protests. “I hate the fact that people were killed over their beliefs on the streets.”
Principe said she had worked as a nurse and was very aware of the risks of Covid-19 but thought voting was important enough to go in person. “I love voting in person. I won't give that up,” she said. “And voting by mail is being attacked. So I want to see my vote go into that machine and get counted.”
On that first morning of early voting, people were also lined up outside the early voting site at Midtown Center, a shopping center on the North Side of Milwaukee. At a press conference in the parking lot, Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg said there were similar lines at polling places across the city. So far, nearly 15,000 people have voted here, more than any of Milwaukee’s 14 other early voting locations, city data showed.
Victor Matts waited in line seated on a collapsible chair covered in Chicago Bears logos, which matched his Bears tracksuit. He had brought a sandwich and a bottle of water. “I came prepared to wait,” he said. “Because with early voting and what’s going on with these politics nowadays, anything can happen. You could be out here for any amount of time.” Matts said that four more years of the Trump administration could threaten his and his family’s access to health care, disability and Social Security benefits. These concerns spurred him to vote early for the first time. “We need to put things back in order with this country,” Matts said.
Long lines at polling locations have been a consistent problem in Milwaukee. Some voters at Midtown, as well as locations elsewhere in the city, reported that it took about two hours to vote.
Lines weren’t the only problem. Misinformation can also inhibit voting. Ramiah Whiteside, an organizer with Ex-Prisoners Organizing, was at Midtown Center as part of a get-out-the-vote campaign. He said he wasn’t eligible to vote because he was still on parole, but he wanted to ensure that others could. “I can't vote, but you possibly can. So therefore, you’re an extension of my voice. That's why I’m out here,” he said. Whiteside said that people who were incarcerated aren’t always told that their voting rights have been restored once they’ve completed the terms of their sentence. Whiteside had come to the polling place as part of a coalition of groups encouraging early voting, and had brought his young granddaughter with him. “I want her to know how important this is to me,” Whiteside said, “so when she's old enough to vote, and eligible, I want her to actively participate in our democracy.”
Near the end of the day, the march from Kenosha arrived in Milwaukee at a downtown park across the street from an early voting site. Though there had been lines earlier in the day, by the time the caravan arrived, there was no wait. As organizers and politicians spoke from a small stage, Ariel Crowder, who drove her mother’s RV as part of the caravan from Kenosha, stood behind a table with information about voting. Over the summer, Crowder started tabling at protests and rallies in Kenosha to help people register to vote.
“I feel like a lot of people are uneducated about voting, which I was that person, like, I don't know, six months ago,” Crowder said. “I just feel like we don’t talk about it enough to make it common knowledge for everyone.”
Working the polls later in the week, Anthony Miller seemed to know the majority of the people who pulled up to vote at the Zablocki Library on the south side of town and greeted them with a huge smile or an elbow bump. He’s worked at the voting site nearly every election over the past 10 years. This year the site was consistently busy during the first week of early voting, Miller said, with people waiting in line for up to an hour.
Miller said many more people this year have been using curbside voting, which, in past elections, had been only for people with disabilities, but this year it’s been expanded to immunocompromised people and those with Covid symptoms.
Barbara Beckert, a coordinator of the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition, said that while curbside voting at every polling place is required by law and Milwaukee has clear information about how to access curbside voting on its elections website, this information is harder for voters to find in other communities.
“Curbside voting should be something that all of the clerks are prioritizing this year, because of the public health issues, not only for the person who needs the accommodation, but for everyone else,” Beckert said. “I mean, if this is how people with symptoms can safely vote from their car, you know, isn’t that something you want to have in place?”
Despite the long lines, turnout in Milwaukee remained strong. Through the end of Wednesday, more than 44,000 people had voted in person in Milwaukee.
The Fox Valley
Northeast Wisconsin has been suffering a major spike in Covid cases. More than half of Outagamie County’s 78 Covid deaths occurred this month. Calumet County reported 592 positive cases at the start of September. The number has now quadrupled to 2,772.
The increase is sparking worries among health officials and fear among the public. In April, poll workers across Wisconsin sat out the election for fear of exposing themselves to the virus. And some have decided to sit out this November as well.
“I have only one grandbaby out in Portland, Oregon,” said Vicki Ashenbrenner, who lives in the Village of Sherwood. “We're just trying to stay healthy so that we can see him someday.”
Ashenbrenner, 69, has worked the polls for at least five years, but this year the pandemic is keeping her inside. The retiree says she’s decided to avoid the movies and restaurants and has opted to stream her church services online. She’s also not working the polls. “I'm not willing to risk my life and my health to work at the polls,” she said.
Some seniors are still doing the work. Retired schoolteacher Sandie Miller, who’s 80 and also from Sherwood, says Covid won’t stop her from doing her civic duty. “Because if I don’t, who will?” she said.
Despite warnings from her friends, Miller said she’s “not crazy,” and doesn’t have a “death wish.” With the combination of Plexiglas, masks, and minimal contact, she says she’s felt safe at the polls. “I can’t sit in my house like a tied-up pumpkin and not do anything,” Miller said.
This year, election officials in Sherwood and other parts of Wisconsin say younger people are stepping up to fill the void. Some cities increased pay for workers. Others doubled the number of staff needed for each polling place. Election officials in some communities have a slate of workers on standby in case the spike in coronavirus cases prompts some workers to drop out at the last minute.
In Appleton, City Clerk Kami Lynch said she feels confident that there will be enough staff to run a smooth election.
Appleton received $18,330 from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based nonprofit that’s giving out grants to elections offices around the country – much of the money coming from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Lynch said her office bought two new tabulators with the grant money to help process ballots faster. There are now seven dropboxes around the city.
Still, Lynch is worried about processing absentee ballots, which she called a “very time-consuming process…. Each ballot has to be removed from an envelope, checked in, and unfolded before going through the tabulator,” she said.
“My biggest concern is just having everything done timely, and that it’s not too late of a night for our workers who work very hard all day.”
In Wisconsin, election officials can’t start counting ballots until Election Day. On top of that, the printer for the city and Outagamie and Calumet counties created 13,000 ballots that were mailed to voters with a damaged barcode. The misprint means tabulating machines won’t count the ballots. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined this week to take up a case that would have allowed Wisconsin clerks to fix the misprint, poll workers will now have to manually duplicate each defective ballot, Lynch said. Nearly 2,000 defective ballots were already submitted by Appleton voters.
“The plan is to have election inspectors remake those ballots on Election Day,” Lynch said, “which will also incur a lot of additional time for processing.”
On the second day of early voting, a steady stream of voters filed into the La Crosse City Hall to cast their ballots. Both Biden and Trump supporters in this western Wisconsin city said they decided to vote in person because they wanted to be sure their votes counted in this critical election. Some said they didn’t trust that the Postal Service would deliver their mailed ballots in time to be counted.
“Most of the mail, you know, you never know if it gets where it’s going,” said Pat Seidel of La Crosse.
Seidel has reason to worry. In the April primary, election officials in La Crosse rejected 500 ballots because the ballots were postmarked after Election Day. On-time delivery rates for the districts serving Wisconsin have also declined since the start of October, according to data from the U.S. Postal Service. Other critical swing states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, have also seen a decline in on-time delivery.
A third of the registered voters in La Crosse submitted a ballot by mail for the November election, according to an analysis of data supplied by the Wisconsin Election Commission.
City and county election officials were urging voters to use drop boxes, hand deliver the ballots or vote in person if they’re worried about the mail service.
They also recognize that the city’s absentee ballot rejection rate in April was among the highest in the state — 9.2 percent of mailed ballots cast in April were tossed out.
Teri Lehrke, city clerk for La Crosse, attributed the high rejection rate to voter confusion amid competing court rulings that shifted deadlines on when ballots would be counted.
But she said the city’s rejected ballots are much lower for the November election. There were 35 ballots that were slated to be rejected if voters didn’t fix the problem.
“We are definitely making an effort to reach folks,” Lehrke said. “But there comes a point in time where we just don’t have time to do that.”
Data from early voting indicates the general election has been far less chaotic than the primary. The Wisconsin Election Commission reports that just 652 mailed ballots are slated to be rejected across the state. Another 816 ballots were mailed back to voters so they can correct information like a missing signature or witness information. With more than 1.1 million mailed ballots already returned, those rejection rates are much lower than April’s primary.
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