Long lines and frustration as Wisconsinites brave voting amid pandemic

Long lines and frustration as Wisconsinites brave voting amid pandemic
Long lines and frustration as Wisconsinites brave voting amid pandemic

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Poll workers stand inside Hamilton High School during the presidential primary election, held amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin April 7, 2020. — Reuters pic

MILWAUKEE, April 8 — Despite a last-minute court battle and a stay-at-home order, thousands of Wisconsin voters yesterday braved the coronavirus outbreak to wait six feet apart in lines for hours and cast ballots in the state's presidential primary and local elections.

Some Wisconsinites who had requested absentee ballots said they never received them, forcing them to choose between risking their health to cast a ballot in person or forgoing their right to vote.

The confusion and frustration among the Midwestern state's citizens — as well as the 11th-hour legal wrangling over whether to hold the election during a public health emergency — served as a sobering preview of what may await other states, or the country as a whole, if the pandemic persists.

The general election that will determine the next president — Republican President Donald or a Democratic challenger — is scheduled for November 3.

In Wisconsin, more than half of municipalities reported shortages of poll workers, prompting the state to call up 2,400 National Guard troops to assist.

Outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee — where officials closed all but five of the city's 180 voting sites for a lack of poll workers — masked voters stood in a line that stretched for several blocks.

In Green Bay, poll workers sat behind Plexiglas barriers. In Madison, election officials urged voters to bring their own pens — black or blue ballpoint, if possible, because other colours or types of ink could flummox ballot-counting machines.

More than a dozen states have postponed elections in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has transformed Americans' daily lives.

On Monday, Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Tony Evers, ordered the election postponed until June despite having previously said he lacked the authority to do so. But the state Supreme Court reversed his order in a ruling late on Monday after Republican legislative leaders challenged Evers' decision.

Separately, in another Republican challenge, the US Supreme Court on Monday overturned a federal judge's decision extending absentee voting for six days, instead ruling all ballots had to be postmarked by yesterday.

That decision forced Jennifer Archer, 35, to don a mask and gloves and head to the polls in Milwaukee after her absentee ballot did not show up.

“I know several people who also never got their ballots,” she said. “They had the option of coming out and hoping for the best, or sit this election out, but I didn't see that as an option.”

Others weren't able to vote at all. Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich said in a phone interview that his wife, who is immunocomprised, never got her absentee ballot and could not risk voting in person.

Hannah Gleeson, a 34-year-old healthcare worker who is 17 weeks pregnant, recently tested positive for the coronavirus. She is self-quarantining at home and last week requested an absentee ballot that has yet to arrive.

State records showed around 9,400 ballots had not been mailed as of yesterday morning.

“Frustrating doesn't even begin to cover it,” Satya Rhodes-Conway, Madison's Democratic mayor, said in an interview. “The fact that the legislature has refused to take any action is just reprehensible.”

'Drive-through' voting

The legal manoeuvring over the election overshadowed Wisconsin's Democratic presidential primary, the first nominating contest since March 17 in the race to pick a challenger to Trump.

Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over rival US Senator Bernie Sanders. The pandemic has forced both candidates off the campaign trail.

Wisconsin election results will not be released until April 13, the deadline for absentee ballots postmarked by yesterday to be received.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, said yesterday's crowded polling sites were particularly risky for African-American voters, who are already seeing a higher incidence of coronavirus infections and fatality rates in Milwaukee, according to public health data.

Some cities resorted to “drive-through” voting. In Beloit, poll workers brought ballots to drivers' windows to be completed.

In the village of Somerset, clerk Felicia Germaine said turnout appeared to be lower than usual. Strips of tape on the ground helped voters maintain distance.

“It's almost like a big game of adult hopscotch,” said Cherie Link, a candidate for state Senate this fall who volunteered as a poll worker yesterday. — Reuters

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