Voters wait hours in a pandemic as conservative courts force election to go on

The tweet from Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes did not mince words about the conditions of voting while coronavirus leaps from person to person:

“Welcome to the Shitshow”

He was far from alone in sharing the anger at having polls open around the state despite numerous efforts to delay in-person voting during a public health emergency.

Early morning post from the personal account of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

Lines of voters stretch for blocks in Milwaukee as the city’s usual 180 polling places have been condensed down to five. Thousands of the usual poll workers across Wisconsin have decided to adhere to health precautions that strongly encourage everyone to stay at home.

Those who are working and voting express concern about the threat of spreading a virus that has already killed more than 10,000 Americans and close to 100 in Wisconsin.

“Voted with a mask, gloves, and my own pen,” tweeted a voter from Outagamie County. “Of the seven people working (at the polling station), no one was wearing a mask and only one person was wearing gloves.”

The tweet was reposted by the area’s state Rep. Gordon Hintz who added, “When the poll workers are not wearing masks and gloves, you are actually designing a virus transmission system.”

A greatly reduced number of polling places means long lines for voters who are greeted by workers in masks as seen in Ashland. (Contributed photo)

His counterpart, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is working at a polling station in Racine County after having successfully challenged Monday’s Executive Order by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that would have delayed today’s in-person voting until June. The conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court voted along ideological lines, 4-2, to strike down the order with conservative Justice Dan Kelly, a candidate today for a full 10-year term, recusing himself.

In the Sauk County town of Spring Green, population of roughly 1600 people – not to be confused with the larger village of Spring Green, retired journalist Judy Ettenhofer is still planning to work at her town’s one polling location this afternoon. She’s not afraid of getting sick but she is mad the election is being held. 

“I am stunned and deeply disappointed that you would put my life at risk and those of my fellow election workers by insisting on holding the election” Ettenhofer wrote to Vos. “Stop blaming the governor and playing politics with this crucial issue.”

Ettenhofer said there are two National Guardsmen at the polling location.

Poll workers in the Lafayette County town of Willow Springs pass out Q-tips for voters to use instead of their fingers on the touch screen machines. (Photo by Patricia Lawson)

Like others, Karen Loeb wanted nothing to do with casting her ballot in person in Tuesday’s election because she feared possibly contracting COVID-19. 

To avoid that scenario, Loeb, a 73-year-old Eau Claire resident sought an absentee ballot three weeks ago, along with her daughter. Five or six days later, her daughter’s ballot showed up in the mail, Loeb said, but hers didn’t. 

A week ago Loeb called the city clerk’s office to make sure her ballot had been sent out. She was told the last absentee ballots for Eau Claire residents had gone out in the mail on March 26, and hers should arrive soon. 

However, election day arrived but Loeb’s ballot still had not. Despite her fears of contracting the deadly virus, Loeb — donning a cloth mask and gloves — headed to her polling place Tuesday morning, determined to vote. 

“I am frustrated and angry about this,” Loeb said, referring to a vote Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court invalidating a ruling last week that would have extended the deadline for absentee votes to still count if they were received by April 13. “People shouldn’t have to choose between possibly being exposed to this virus and voting.”

A masked voter casts one of the early ballots in Ashland. (Contributed photo)

Back at Milwaukee’s Riverside High School, the waiting, the worrying about the health risks, and the fuming will last until the polls close at 8 p.m.

“I think it’s about power over public health, just a big unnecessary risk,” said Jesse Johnson, 28. Asked why he still came to vote: “I’m healthy and able. I don’t want them to go through with their intention of voter suppression.”

“This is our health,” said Dorothea Handy, “They’re telling us to stay in but they’re forcing us to go out like this…. It was aimed at keeping us from voting. They figure a lot of those Democrats won’t vote.”

“I think it’s absolutely abhorrent, and I’m so disgusted at Vos and Fitzgerald.” said Jhennifer Menting, 52.  She got to Riverside at about 7:05 a.m. and didn’t get to vote til about 10 a.m. She said she saw many people look at the line and turn around over the course of her waiting.

Meanwhile, in Wiota, population 900, where two members of the Wisconsin National Guard are also working, Kriss Marion is volunteering. On the ballot for the Lafayette County board, she is prohibited from working in her home town of Blanchardville. 

By 9:30 a.m., 23 people had voted, a good figure for that time of day.

She said skepticism about COVID-19 in rural areas may actually lead to a higher voter turnout there.

UpNorthNews reporters Jessica VanEgeren, Julian Emerson and Jonathon Sadowski contributed to this report.