‘All things considered’ Wisconsin does its best to vote

    Election Day
    A working paper from UW-Oshkosh economists links in-person voting to an increase in COVID-19 infections. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner

    Wisconsin’s 2020 spring election will be graded on a curve — well, two actually. 

    The first curve is how well election officials were able to handle holding in-person voting during a pandemic. The second curve is how sharply the number of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 cases will jump after thousands of people around the state were forced to ignore public health orders to head to the polls. 

    Despite efforts from politicians, local officials and activists to delay the April 7 election, in-person voting went forward Tuesday in Wisconsin. Dr. Ben Weston, director of Medical Services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said the election would end up harming the state’s work to slow the spread of the disease.

    “There’s no doubt it challenges the COVID efforts, no doubt it’s spreading disease,” Weston said at a video press conference Tuesday. 

    But around the state, people were still heading to the polls — with varying degrees of success, depending on their zip code. 

    In Milwaukee, which was forced to open just five polling places, compared to its usual 180, long lines forced people to wait for hours. 

    Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson said different municipalities around the county were seeing different levels of turnout.

    “It’s slow, to steady, to busy,” Christenson said. “The poll workers are in great spirits, the voters are appreciative. There’s some confusion at first and some complaints how this process has been but overall it’s been going relatively smoothly, all things considered.”

    Yet in the state’s biggest city, the long lines were evidence of historical inequalities, according to County Executive Chris Abele. This was compounded by the fact that Milwaukee’s African-American neighborhoods have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19. 

    “From the racial inequality that existed in this community for a long time, it’s a straight line,” Abele said. 

    Milwaukee wasn’t the only Wisconsin city with long waits due to consolidated polls. Green Bay, which went to just two polling locations out of its usual 31, had lines wrapped around the high school gyms being used. 

    Celestine Jeffries, chief of staff to Mayor Eric Genrich, said in an email that while lines were long, the process was going smoothly. 

    “The lines at both high schools are indeed long,” she reported. “I’ve heard a couple of hours wait.  People are calm, and keeping their physical distance.”

    But elsewhere in the state, voting was going much quicker and smoother. In Madison, which operated 66 polling places instead of its usual 93, Deputy City Clerk Jim Verbick said the most people he saw in line was eight. 

    He added turnout was down compared to previous spring elections, but that absentee ballots have yet to be added. 

    It was much easier to vote in Madison than Milwaukee. Many voters in Madison’s locations not plagued by long lines were able to take advantage of curbside voting.

    “Our municipality tends not to have crazy lines,” Verbick says. “Thankfully everyone’s doing really well at staying true to six foot space.”

    Without having to deal with lines, the Madison City Clerk’s Office on Tuesday spent a lot of time assisting voters who were cast aside by the whirlwind of court activity surrounding the election in recent days, according to Verbick. 

    He said this morning the office was emailing absentee ballots to voters who had requested one but not yet received it in the mail and later in the day started working with absentee voters who — in the short period of time it was allowed — had mailed in absentee ballots without a witness signature. 

    “Now at this point, we’re trying to see what we can do,” Verbick says. “We have thousands of ballots that will likely be invalidated.”

    In Wisconsin’s small towns turnout was down even more dramatically. In Fort Atkinson, City Clerk Michelle Ebbert says she’d only had 387 in-person voters by 3 p.m. She added she would have expected 4,000 voters if the election were taking place under normal circumstances. 

    The city only has one polling location, the gym in the municipal building, but the most there at one time was seven or eight, according to Ebbert. The most she had waiting in line was ten. 

    “It’s slow but that’s kind of the idea,” Ebbert says. “We wanted everybody to absentee vote.”

    Ebbert said she’d received more than 2,300 absentee ballots. 

    Turnout numbers won’t be available when polls close Tuesday evening. Some individual municipalities will be able to report numbers but the Wisconsin Election Commission said in a live blog Tuesday there will not be a state aggregate of ballots cast. 

    Results won’t be available until municipalities are allowed to count votes on April 13. 

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.