HUDSON, WIS. – Brenda Drinken didn’t even consider not voting in Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday, despite COVID-19 concerns that nearly postponed the election in a frenzied legal battle.
“There’s people putting their lives on the line every day,” Drinken said as she and her husband, Mike, waited to vote at the Hudson Fire Department. Their faces were covered by masks as they stood 6 feet apart from other voters on either side. “Like my daughter — she’s a nurse in Rice Lake. It’s our duty and right and privilege, and you can’t be afraid.”
Wisconsin’s primary election went ahead as scheduled Tuesday, after the state’s Supreme Court overruled Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute order to postpone in-person voting in response to the widening coronavirus pandemic.
From Hudson to Sturgeon Bay, Superior to Kenosha to Madison to Milwaukee, Wisconsinites headed out, despite a stay-at-home order, to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, a bitterly contested state Supreme Court race and for thousands of local offices.
The political and legal chaos that preceded the state’s primary is a possible preview of the way that America’s COVID-19 crisis could roil the democratic process in this election year.
The jostling in Wisconsin highlighted a nationwide divide between the two political parties in their response to voting under adverse conditions, with Democrats seeking much broader access to voting by mail while Republicans push against it.
But in Hudson on Tuesday morning, things were proceeding calmly. Around 8:30 a.m., about two dozen people were queued up in a snaking line outside the Fire Department, which was chosen as a roomier alternative voting site to City Hall.
“Everyone I’ve dealt with has been very pleasant, and that’s really all I was hoping for,” said Alison Egger, a city employee helping run the election.
Orange traffic cones marked where to stand in order to maintain social distance in the voting line. Voters were let into the fire hall one at a time (couples like Brenda and Mike Drinken were allowed in together). Many, though not all, wore masks or other face covers.
City workers erected plexiglass sneeze guards to protect poll workers. About a dozen Wisconsin National Guard soldiers were on hand to help out, as many election volunteers opted not to show up this year.
“It’s worth the risk,” said Andrew Hetchler, a truck driver waiting in line with a blaze orange deer-hunting scarf wrapped around his nose and mouth. “I’m young and healthy. This is a small risk, and it’s worth taking.”
Hetchler’s main interest was to vote in the state Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly and challenger Jill Karofsky. Calling himself a strong Second Amendment supporter, Hetchler said he worried Karofsky would rule in favor of tougher gun laws. Kelly was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The Supreme Court race in this Midwestern battleground state has been closely watched across the nation. Kelly could be the deciding vote in a voting rights case that could push 240,000 people off Wisconsin’s voter rolls ahead of November’s election.
By comparison, the presidential primary has receded in importance, even though Wisconsin is the only state still holding an election this month. With former Vice President Joe Biden now the presumed nominee, the Democratic race has quieted considerably. A Marquette University poll released last week found Biden with a wide lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had easily carried the state in the 2016 Democratic primary.
In Superior, 3,300 absentee ballots had been returned by Tuesday out of 4,300 requested, far exceeding previous levels. Mayor Jim Paine said the city had been “aggressively” asking residents to vote early, and that their efforts were paying off. “Thankfully, a majority of the expected turnout has already voted,” he said.
Around 10 a.m. poll workers at City Hall wore masks and directed a slow trickle of voters through traffic cones meant to keep safe distance. Election official Melanie Sternberg said she was surprised to see things going smoothly. “The biggest difference is the people who aren’t here, “ she said.
While things were orderly in Superior and Hudson on Tuesday morning, there were reports of long lines in places like Milwaukee, where the normal 180 polling locations were reduced to just five.
Up until late last week, Evers, a Democrat, had resisted calls to postpone in-person voting. But he changed course late last week, calling a special legislative session and asking lawmakers to postpone the primary. Republicans who control the Legislature ignored his request. On Monday, Evers issued an executive order to postpone the primary until June 9 — a move he said just last week was probably outside his legal authority.
Hours later, the state Supreme Court voted 4-2 to block Evers’ order.
Evers had also sought to lengthen the window in which absentee ballots could be received to several weeks past the primary date. On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled that all absentee ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday.
“It’s just a terrible mess, to say the least,” said Becky Eggen, the Hudson city clerk. Asked if she’s worried about the health risks for voters and poll workers, Eggen replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
Jordyn Anderson, a University of Wisconsin-River Falls student waiting in line in Hudson, said she wanted to vote as an act of personal rebellion because she was raised in a religious faith that discouraged participation in elections.
“If I get it, I get it,” Anderson said of the coronavirus. “This is still safer than a grocery store right now.”
Staff Writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.