So they took their final chance in person despite fears of coronavirus infection, trying to keep a safe distance from the hundreds of others waiting in line.
“We decided to risk our lives to come vote,” said Bradish, 40. “I feel like I’m voting for my neighbors, all the people who don’t have the luxury to wait this long.”
The snaking lines in Milwaukee and other cities illustrated the fallout from the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s controversial order to proceed with Tuesday’s elections over the objections of the governor and public health officials — and showed the determination of many voters to participate despite the pandemic.
The nearly unprecedented challenge for election officials hit hardest in Milwaukee, which opened five voting locations out of the typical 180 because of worker shortages, and Green Bay, which offered only two polling locations instead of the usual 31 and had waits of two to three hours.
Confusion and partisan rancor reigned across the state after a series of fast-moving events Monday, when Gov. Tony Evers (D) tried to suspend in-person voting but was defeated in court by the GOP-controlled legislature.
Republicans argued that canceling elections would sow chaos, while Democrats accused them of trying to suppress voter turnout to help a conservative incumbent on the state Supreme Court.
The drama in Wisconsin offered a preview of what could play out in upcoming primaries — and possibly in the November election — as the health crisis upends voting around the country.
The state court’s decision late Monday made Wisconsin the only state to proceed with a presidential primary this month, defying the public health emergency that has led more than a dozen other states to postpone their contests.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in 30 years of local government,” said Dale Peters, city manager of Eau Claire.
Voters cast ballots in thousands of local elections, as well as in the race between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the Democratic presidential nomination. The results will not be released until Monday, according to the state election commission.
Sanders was outspoken in urging the state to postpone the election, saying last week that “people should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote.” Biden, who in recent days had said it was up state officials, said Tuesday night on CNN that the election should have been mail-in only and not conducted in person.
The hotly contested Supreme Court race, between conservative justice Daniel Kelly and liberal candidate Jill Karofsky, attracted the most attention among the day’s contenders — including a tweet from President Trump.
“Wisconsin, get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly,” the president wrote. “Protect your 2nd Amendment!”
At the daily White House coronavirus briefing, Trump was asked who should be held responsible if Wisconsinites become ill after standing in long lines to vote.
“Look, all I did was endorse a candidate,” Trump said. “I don’t know anything about their lines. I don’t know anything about their voting.”
When pressed on how standing in line to vote squared with social distancing recommendations, Trump said the Democrats in charge at the state level would have to answer that.
Some voters complained that they had to go to the polls in person after requesting absentee ballots that never came, while others said they were too fearful to vote because of the risk of infection.
According to a tally compiled by the state election commission, more than 9,000 requested absentee ballots had not been sent to voters as of Tuesday, though some officials cautioned that the figure was not up to date.
The day began with long waits in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Waukesha.
Outside Riverside University High School, seething anger mixed with resolve at the end of the line of about 400 voters, who alternated between standing six feet apart and drawing closer together as they shuffled forward. A poll worker handed out light-blue masks.
“I have to wait,” said John Carter, 71, a retired bus driver. “I have to cast my ballot. I don’t have anything going on, except the legs get tired. I’m an old man.”
Normally, he said, he walks four blocks to his neighborhood polling site, and it takes 20 minutes, tops. Like many, Carter felt angry.
“I think the Republicans in Madison wanted this,” he said, shaking his head.
Leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature defended their position, saying they advocated for voters to cast absentee ballots.
In a video interview Tuesday with the Journal Times of Racine, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told voters they were “incredibly safe to go out.”
Vos, who was dressed in head-to-toe personal protective equipment as he volunteered as an election inspector in Burlington, said it “made no sense” to delay in-person voting because there is “no guarantee that in May or June, we are going to be safer.”
The election proceeded after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4 to 2 late Monday that Evers’s order exceeded his constitutional powers as governor.
Dissenting, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley accused the court’s majority of “risking the health of our families, neighbors and friends.”
As of Tuesday morning, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reported that 1,273,374 absentee ballots had been mailed and 864,750 had been returned. The latter figure already exceeds the record 830,763 absentee ballots received in the 2016 general election.
But many voters still turned out in person, despite the health risks.
In the morning, Rosie Redmon, 79, sat in her wheelchair at the front of the line at Riverside University High School. She arrived with her son and daughter-in-law at 5:45 a.m., knowing that the polling location would be packed.
“I’m a voter,” she said. “I do not miss voting.” Absentee was never an option — too much can go wrong, she said.
Redmon, like a majority of voters in line, is African American. She wore a mask and latex gloves.
“I sleep in my mask,” she said. “People laugh, but this is serious.”
By nightfall, there were still hundreds of voters waiting in line outside the school, by now standing closely bunched together.
Neil V. Albrecht, executive director of the city’s election commission, said Milwaukee’s five voting sites were processing ballots as quickly as possible, but he acknowledged an average wait time of an hour to two hours.
He credited patient voters and poll workers who were diligently moving people through the lines as quickly as possible, keeping the process running smoothly.
“I believe they are the true heroes of the very unfortunate decision that was made yesterday” to continue the election, Albrecht said. He was referring to the poll workers, who were being supplemented by about 170 National Guard troops throughout the city, plus at least four city public health workers at each site.
Meg Wartman, the Waukesha County clerk, said that although the line at the city of Waukesha’s single voting place was long when polls opened, it quickly disappeared. She said several of the county’s towns set up drive-through voting locations for people who preferred to stay in their cars.
In a statement Tuesday, Evers urged Wisconsinites to “stay as safe as possible.”
“I am overwhelmed by the bravery, resilience, and heroism of those who are defending our democracy by showing up to vote, working the polls, and reporting on this election,” the governor said.
Still, thousands of poll workers around the state refused to work, saying they were being asked to risk their health as the coronavirus spreads.
“I don’t understand the logic of why this election has to be held today,” said David Tschida, who previously served as a chief election inspector for the city of Eau Claire.
The exodus left administrators scrambling. Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said officials had to hire more workers and deploy the National Guard to assist 111 municipalities that last week warned they didn’t have enough poll workers to open a single voting location.
“We’re not aware of any municipality where somebody is showing up and there’s no place to vote in that municipality,” Magney said.
Voting proceeded smoothly in the state capital, Madison, and surrounding Dane County, according to the county clerk. Unlike Milwaukee, which is more than twice as big, Madison was able to secure enough poll workers to open 66 voting sites, county clerk Scott McDonell said.
McDonell said turnout was light, in part because so many Dane County residents voted by mail but also, he feared, because voters were staying home out of concerns about infection.
Multiple voters told The Washington Post that they had not received their requested absentee ballots.
Marcelia Nicholson, a member of Milwaukee’s board of supervisors, said she made her request March 21, but the ballot had not arrived by the end of the day yesterday.
Nicholson was up for reelection Tuesday, and while she was running unopposed, she was unsure whether she would be able to cast a vote for herself.
“I do not consider this a legitimate election, and I myself have experienced disenfranchisement,” she said. “If I’m having that issue, as a high-information voter who shows up for every election, how many other people are being disenfranchised? Even one would be too many.”
In Eau Claire, Deann Mattson, 66, said she requested an absentee ballot three weeks ago, but it did not arrive. So she donned a teal-green face mask and headed to the polls.
Mattson said her polling site was well-sanitized, and she expressed hopes that “in November, if this mess isn’t over, that things go as good.”
Still, if she had her way, the election would have been done by mail.
“I’m not too happy with the Republican Party,” said Mattson, a registered Democrat. “I just don’t think it’s right to put people in harm’s way because they want to try to suppress the vote. Government shouldn’t do everything they can to stop you from having your voice.”
Albrecht said many voters have asked to be reissued absentee ballots that never arrived, but state law forbids the city from doing so, he said.
For those people, “your only option is in-person,” he said. “I think this is a very sad situation.”
Larson reported from Eau Claire, and Simmons from Milwaukee. Scott Clement, Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser, David Weigel and Colby Itkowitz in Washington contributed to this report.