Gretchen Yoder waits in line to vote April 7 at Washington High School in Milwaukee. She wore handwritten signs on her purse and shirt that read: "This is what voter suppression looks like," a protest of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to overrule Gov. Tony Evers' executive order postponing Tuesday's election. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
Gretchen Yoder waits in line to vote April 7 at Washington High School in Milwaukee. She wore handwritten signs on her purse and shirt that read: "This is what voter suppression looks like," a protest of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to overrule Gov. Tony Evers' executive order postponing Tuesday's election. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Wisconsin votes during the coronavirus pandemic

The weather in Wisconsin Tuesday is the kind that election officials hope for — a nice spring day, no snow, a little rain in some areas, some heavy morning fog in others, but elsewhere bright blue skies and sunshine. 

Yet the perfect day that normally drives high voter turnout took a backseat to the fact Wisconsin’s April 7 primary was still being held in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the focus of a normal election day is usually on the candidates, the fact that Tuesday is the state’s  Democratic presidential primary and a statewide race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court seat were facts lost amid the circus that played out Monday over whether or not the election would even be held.

Voters who already received and returned an absentee ballot gave little thought to the election. But those who never requested an absentee ballot or requested one and never received it were faced with the decision to either risk their health or not participate in the democratic process. 

“I think this all should have been handled through absentee ballots,” said Madison resident and poll worker Curtis Huffman, a thick scarf covering his mouth and nose and surgical gloves on his hands. “At a time when we are dealing with a pandemic and the governor is asking people to go out the absolute minimum necessary, I think it’s ridiculous that we are asking people to go out and vote and congregate when we could be doing this through a paper process.” 

Health concerns had already reduced the number of polling locations in many cities. In Madison, the number of locations dropped from 92 to 66. The biggest drop came in Milwaukee. The city with the highest number of registered voters and the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths had its polling locations reduced from 182 to five.

In Milwaukee, those five polling places had voters queuing for upwards of an hour just to cast a ballot. At the two busiest spots, Washington High and Riverside High schools, simply finding the end of the winding, expansive lines could take several minutes. 

Jhennifer Menting, a 52-year-old who voted at Riverside, said she waited nearly three hours to vote. 

“It’s a bad situation either way,” Wausau resident Tammy Verdigen said in reference to voters risking their health at polling places or not voting because of health worries. “We shouldn’t be gathering at voting sites when there is a public health pandemic. This is no way to have an election.”

Those who did opt to still vote were met by bottles of hand sanitizer, single-use pens, masked volunteers and plexiglass or see-through structures to separate them from the poll workers. 

Voters across Wisconsin reported having requested but not received absentee ballots in time for Tuesday’s election. According to court documents, 12,000 absentee ballots had not been sent out Sunday. 

Eau Claire resident Jon Loomis was among those who requested a ballot but it didn’t arrive in time. 

He decided to vote, just as he does in nearly every election. 

“It’s putting my health at risk to some degree,” Loomis, 61, said, noting he was especially worried for the health of poll workers.  

Eau Claire City Clerk Carrie Riepl acknowledged some voters at Eau Claire polling places were upset they were forced to vote in a public setting amid COVID-19 concerns or relinquishing that right.

“Some people are not happy they have to come to the polls,” Riepl said late Tuesday afternoon. “We understand that. We just tell them the election has to take place.”

On Monday, less than 24 hours before the polls were set to open, the State Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on two separate cases. 

The state case overrode Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute attempt to suspend the election until June 9 through an executive order. 

The other determined absentee ballots could not be postmarked later than election day, yet maintained ballots would still be counted and election results not announced until Monday. 

Kevin Anderson cast his ballot at the new high school in Sun Prairie. He said that given all the turmoil in recent days between the assembly, the senate and the governor and the short notice the election would even be held, the clerks did a “very good job.”

“But democracy works better when more people can vote,” said Anderson. “This is not conducive to high voter turnout.”

In Ashland, City Clerk Denise Oliphant predicted just 25 percent of total votes would be cast in person Tuesday. Similarly, Riepl estimated that figure would be between 20 and 25 percent.

As of 11 a.m, the Madison City Clerk’s office reported turnout at just under 10 percent of registered voters. In April 2016, the last time there was a presidential primary, turnout was reported at 22 percent at that same time and  overall turnout was 66 percent.

With turnout down and the usual group of volunteers down as well, many young adults stepped up to help out. 

Farah Famouri, a UW-Madison Law School student, greeted curbside voters at Falk Elementary in Madison wearing gloves and a surgical mask. 

“The average poll worker and volunteer tends to be in the vulnerable age group COVID-19,” Famouri said. “I figured I’m not showing any symptoms and I can volunteer so I thought it would be a good idea to do it for this election.”

Andrea and Dave Barber flew to Florida in mid-March to pick up their daughter Peyton from Stetson University, her freshman year in-person college classes cut short by the start of the coronavirus outbreak. 

On Tuesday, Peyton volunteered at Fire Station 13 in Madison. 

“I am concerned she will be bringing something into the house that we thankfully avoided when we moved her back from Florida and college,” Andrea said Tuesday. “But I am extremely proud that she took the Girl Scout adage of giving back to your community to heart.”