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Wisconsin voters wait hours at the few open polling stationsSubmitted: 04/07/2020
MADISON - Thousands of Wisconsin voters waited hours in line to cast ballots and the National Guard staffed overcrowded polling stations on Tuesday, straining the state's ability to hold a presidential primary election under the lash of an escalating pandemic.

At the same time, many voters said they did not receive their requested absentee ballots and, unwilling to violate a stay-at-home order to vote in person, accepted their votes would not be counted.

"We have moved forward with an election, but we have not moved forward with democracy in the state of Wisconsin," warned Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee election commission.

The state's largest city opened just five of its 180 traditional polling places, forced to downsize after hundreds of poll workers stepped down because of health risks. The resulting logjam forced voters to wait together in lines spanning several blocks in some cases. Many did not have facial coverings.

The chaos in Wisconsin, a premiere general-election battleground, underscored the lengths to which the coronavirus outbreak has upended politics as Democrats seek a nominee to take on President Donald Trump this fall. As the first state to hold a presidential primary contest in three weeks, Wisconsin becomes a test case for dozens of states struggling to balance public health concerns with voting rights in the turbulent 2020 election season.

Joe Biden hopes the state will help deliver a knockout blow against Bernie Sanders in the nomination fight, but the winner of Tuesday's contest may be less significant than Wisconsin's decision to allow voting at all. Its ability to host an election during a growing pandemic could have significant implications for upcoming primaries and even the fall general election.

Polls were scheduled to close at 8 p.m. CDT, although results were not expected Tuesday night. A court ruling appeared to prevent results from being made public earlier than next Monday.

Democrats in and out of Wisconsin screamed for the contest to be postponed, yet Republicans - and the conservative-majority state Supreme Court - would not give in. There were particular concerns that minority voters, who tend to live in the areas with the most significant wait times and the highest health risks, were disproportionately affected.

The fight over whether to postpone the election, as more than a dozen states have done, was colored by a state Supreme Court election also being held Tuesday. A lower turnout was thought to benefit the conservative candidate.

Lest there be any doubt about the GOP's motivation, Trump on Tuesday broke from health experts who have encouraged all Americans to stay home by calling on his supporters to show up for the conservative judicial candidate.

"Wisconsin, get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly. Protect your 2nd Amendment!" Trump tweeted.

Sanders said that holding the election was "dangerous" and "may very well prove deadly." He did not encourage his supporters to vote in person. Biden has largely avoided discussion of the Wisconsin contest in recent days, instructing his supporters only to "follow the science."

Wisconsin had reported nearly 2,500 coronavirus infections and 77 related deaths as of Monday night.

The unprecedented challenge created a chaotic scenes across the state - and a variety of health risks for voters and the elected officials who fought to keep polls open.

They included Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the state Assembly, who joined more than 2,500 National Guard troops dispatched to help staff voting stations. While many voters stranded in lines for more than an hour did not have any protective equipment, Vos donned a face mask, safety glasses, gloves and a full protective gown.

In Madison, city workers erected Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.

State GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt downplayed the health concerns: "This isn't New York City."

He noted that Wisconsin residents are still going to the grocery store, the liquor store and even boating stores classified as essential businesses. "I can't really think of something more essential than voting," he said.

As of midday Tuesday, most voting sites in Milwaukee were reporting wait times between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, according to Albrecht. Lines stretched several blocks outside buildings as workers tried to maintain social distancing recommendations that everyone stand at least six feet apart.

Tens of thousands of voters who received absentee ballots had not returned them as of Tuesday, Albrecht said, noting that his office received hundreds of calls from people who didn't get an absentee ballot or were concerned theirs hadn't been delivered to election officials.

On the eve of the election, it was unclear whether in-person voting would happen at all.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Monday afternoon to postpone the election. Less than four hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans who said Evers didn't have the authority to reschedule the race on his own.

Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court quickly followed with a 5-4 ruling that overturned a lower court's decision expanding absentee voting.

Evers himself had questioned whether he had the power to reschedule the election, but said the worsening situation, including an increase in COVID-19 deaths, made clear there was no way to safely move forward. The first-term Democrat said he sought the delay because he was motivated by protecting public health, not politics.

With the U.S. Supreme Court decision, voters were given no extra time for absentee voting. The court said absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by Tuesday evening or postmarked by Tuesday, although they can arrive at clerks' offices as late as Monday. Wisconsin election officials said the high court's order left intact a provision of the lower-court order that no returns be reported until that day.

Meanwhile, voters shared what one called an "eerie" experience at the polls.

Christopher Sullivan, a 35-year-old high school business teacher from western Wisconsin, said two police officers greeted voters outside of his polling site in Holmen. Inside, two members of the county health department instructed him to wash his hands in a makeshift sink.

In another room, Sullivan was told to take one of the pens on a table spaced 6 inches apart and not give it back. He was given his ballot by "an elderly lady wearing a mask and gloves sitting behind a glass wall."

"I have voted many times in my life (and at this location) and have never experienced something so eerie," said Sullivan, who leans Democratic and voted for Sanders on Tuesday. "Because it is this unsafe to vote, maybe we should have postponed the election or done mail-in ballots."

He said he was "ashamed to be from Wisconsin today."

Story By: Scott Bauer and Steve Peoples, Associated Press
Photo By: Associated Press

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 REGIONAL NEWS

MADISON - The number of deaths from the coronavirus in Wisconsin increased by 15 as reported Tuesday as voters were casting ballots in person at the polls statewide, despite an order to stay at home to avoid spreading the highly contagious disease.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that deaths increased from 77 on Monday to 92 on Tuesday. The overall number of confirmed cases rose from 2,440 to 2,578.

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The outcome of the court battles - expected to litigate mail-in voting rules, voter identification requirements and safe access to polls - may have a significant impact on how many people turn out to vote in hundreds of elections across the country between now and November, including the race for the White House. It will likely play out in key presidential battlegrounds amid an already roiling debate over voting rights and protecting access to the ballot.

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WASHINGTON D.C. - The U.S. Supreme Court blocked part of a lower court decision to extend the absentee voting deadline in Wisconsin.

A federal judge in the Western District of Wisconsin issued a ruling last week extending the state's absentee ballot deadline to April 13.  However, the Supreme Court ruled absentee ballots must still be postmarked by Spring Election Day, April 7th.  They must also be received by April 13th.

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MADISON - The number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus in Wisconsin is up to 77 as of Monday, the state Department of Health Services reported.

That is an increase of nine people from Sunday. There have now been deaths reported in 16 counties. More than half of all deaths, 40, have occurred in Milwaukee County, followed by Dane County with nine.

As of Monday, there were 2,440 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. But because testing is not widespread, health officials continue to caution the actual number of cases is far higher.

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A second person has died of injuries suffered in a crash caused by a homicide suspect fleeing from law enforcement in Milwaukee.

A 23-year-old man died over the weekend after he was critically injured in a crash Friday that also caused the death of a 20-year-old woman.

The 27-year-old suspect is wanted for a homicide in Minot, North Dakota.

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WISCONSIN - Gov. Tony Evers announced Saturday that the state of Wisconsin has been granted a major disaster declaration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides access to Public Assistance programs for all 72 Wisconsin counties and federally recognized tribes.

"I am grateful for the swift action of the federal government in reviewing our request for a major disaster declaration," said Gov. Evers. "The assistance granted today will help ensure Wisconsin can gain access to critical assistance as we continue our work to respond to this pandemic."

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MADISON (AP) - Wisconsin's attempt to conduct an election in the midst of a coronavirus crisis lurched forward Friday, with a Democratic governor pushing for an all-mail election to replace in-person voting and Republican leaders refusing to budge.

Just three days before Tuesday's spring primary, which features the Democratic presidential contest plus a high-stakes state Supreme Court race, a federal judge had extended absentee voting through April 13 but refused requests to postpone the election.

With thousands of poll workers quitting, Gov. Tony Evers for the first time Friday called for an all-mail election, ordering a special session Saturday and asking the Republican-dominated Legislature to agree.

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