‘Everything is more complicated in Northern Wisconsin’: Voters in 7th district set to go to the polls — again

Election Day
Voters in Madison on April 7 wore masks and gloves while braving the polls. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

A little more than a month has passed since Wisconsin’s April 7 election and more than 50 cases of COVID-19 have been attributed to in-person voting. 

Now the state’s 7th Congressional District is getting ready to hold a special election between Republican Tom Tiffany and Democrat Tricia Zunker on May 12, to fill the seat left vacant by retiring Rep. Sean Duffy

Although state officials, party leaders and local clerks learned some lessons in April, there are still concerns and frustrations with holding yet another in-person election. Not making it any easier, the conditions in the 7th, the state’s largest district, throw up roadblocks to helping voters vote by mail or even turn out at all. 

Covering 20 counties, the sheer landmass of the district makes coordination between local organizations more difficult. Spotty wifi and broadband internet access make it harder to reach voters online and provide them with information to help request absentee ballots. Even the fact that western portions of the district sit in the Twin Cities media market makes it harder for  voters to get information about the election. 

Add in the coronavirus pandemic, and an already challenging situation gets worse. Cases of the virus have been confirmed in most of the district’s counties, though none of them have the level of outbreak Wisconsin has seen in other areas. 

“Everything is more complicated in Northern Wisconsin,” Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, says. “The distances are longer, service is slower, more places don’t have broadband or even cell phone service. We’re mailing people absentee ballot request forms, we’re following up everywhere we can.” 

headshot of Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler
Ben Wikler (photo courtesy of Democratic Party of Wisconsin)

He added that even though there hasn’t been a major outbreak in the area, he hopes people are cautious because the population is especially vulnerable. 

“Coronavirus is working its way from cities to rural areas,” Wikler points out. “The population is older in Northern Wisconsin than Southern Wisconsin. It’s also the case that people are less likely to interact with people each day, so we hope that anybody who does choose to vote in person takes every possible precaution.”

Another concern is the area’s hospital capacity, which is much lower than other parts of the state. So an outbreak runs a greater risk of overwhelming the system. 

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On the ground, officials are doing what they can to help people get to the polls. Especially older voters and poorer voters who don’t have the technology they need to vote absentee. 

“We’re encouraging people to get their ballots early,” Kim Butler, chair of the 7th District Democratic Party, says. “We’ve always been offering to help people with things like uploading photo IDs. I’d take my printer to somebody’s house if that was going to help. There are lots of people willing to help people. [Voters] don’t all have smartphones, don’t all have internet access, don’t all have printers.”

For some voters, such as Town of Bayfield resident Douglas Cannon, help from neighbors and officials has been absolutely necessary to voting. 

The 68-year-old Cannon is almost the definition of a community member who is vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Republican Tom Tiffany (lower left) and Democrat Tricia Zunker (lower right) virtually debated Monday night (screenshot by Henry Redman).
Republican Tom Tiffany (lower left) and Democrat Tricia Zunker (lower right) virtually debated Monday night (screenshot by Henry Redman).

After years of dealing with heart disease, he had a heart attack last year which required triple bypass surgery. While he was in the hospital, doctors found a malignant spot on his lung, also requiring surgery and leaving him with just two-thirds of his right lung remaining. 

Needless to say, going to the polls, going anywhere during the pandemic, is a risk for him. But, as a lifelong voter, he was determined to cast his ballot in April. 

“I can’t remember the last time I missed an election,” Cannon says.

Cannon’s neighbor, the town clerk, helped him apply for an absentee ballot. Weeks went by. His ballot still hadn’t arrived, so a clerk drove one over to his house, watched him fill it out, witnessed it and turned it in. 

For the special election, trying to avoid the difficulties of April, he’s already received his ballot, filled it out and — not trusting the postal service again — handed it directly to the clerk next door. 

“It’s unnerving,” he says about the problems he’s had with voting. He added he’s already requested his absentee ballot for the November general election. 

Most voters in the 7th District don’t live next to their town clerks, but many are still opting to vote absentee. With one day remaining before the May 7 deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail, 104,804 requests have been reported and 100,892 ballots have been sent, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. 

While more than 322,000 voters turned out in the district’s 2018 election, special elections often have lower turnout and officials say they don’t expect to reach that 2018 bar. 

Tricia Zunker official Wausau School Board photo
Tricia Zunker

But even with all the efforts that have gone into promoting the election and requesting absentee ballots, local party members are frustrated they’ve been put in this situation again. 

“I find the whole ‘vote and possibly die’ option appalling,” Steve Gustafson, chair of the Price County Democratic Party, says. “We’re trying our best to get the word out for our county residents to get absentee ballots, but I know from experience that some don’t have the ability to do this online and may just be unaware of that option because they aren’t tuned in to the situation. The fact we did this under a month ago and are getting ready to go ahead and do it again is literally sickening.”

As far as the actual race, the 7th District has recently been solidly Republican. Donald Trump won the district by more than 20 points in 2016 and the Republican Duffy won by more than 20 points in 2018. 

But high profile endorsements of Zunker from political figures such as Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, as well as organizations such as Emily’s List, have given Democrats some hope. Trump has tweeted his endorsement of Tiffany. 

Wikler set expectations lower than an upset win, saying if Zunker can come close, it bodes ill  for Trump’s reelection chances in the fall. 

District Democrats were more optimistic. 

“Even though this is difficult, we’re excited at the momentum Tricia’s getting,” Butler says. “[She’s] kind of getting treated more seriously by people, that she actually has a chance of winning in what is a gerrymandered district … there’s always hope.”

official photo of state Sen. Tom Tiffany
Sen. Tom Tiffany

The Tiffany campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail or online is May 7. The deadline to request one in person is May 10. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on election day, May 12. 

No matter what happens at the polls, both of these candidates will likely be on the ballot again in November. The winner will serve in Congress for five months before the term ends and then will run for reelection.