Early Voting Shattered, Wisconsin Polls Open Amid Pandemic

Election officials warned that the time needed to process absentee ballots could leave some results unknown into Wednesday

In this Oct. 20, 2020, file photo, a man casts his ballot at Tippecanoe Library on the first day of in-person early voting for the November 3rd elections in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

After shattering early voting records, Wisconsin voters had a final chance Tuesday to cast ballots in schools, libraries, churches and community buildings, even as coronavirus cases surged and political tensions ran high in the battleground state.

Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin's top elections official, said Tuesday at noon that Election Day had “gone smoothly” so far.

Both sides were closely watching absentee and in-person voting for any irregularities that could make a difference. Election officials warned that the time needed to process absentee ballots could leave some results unknown into Wednesday, and they urged people to be patient.

“If unofficial results don’t come in until early the next morning, it doesn’t mean something went wrong,” Wolfe cautioned last week. “It means election officials are doing their jobs and making sure every legitimate ballot gets counted.”

President Donald Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes four years ago. Joe Biden sought to put the state back in the Democratic column, where it was for a generation before 2016.

In the week leading up to the election, both Biden and Trump campaigned in parts of Wisconsin where their base is strong. Polls showed there were few undecided voters, making turning out the vote all the more vital for both sides.

The coronavirus pandemic motivated over 1.9 million voters to mail in their ballots or vote in person before Election Day, far surpassing the early voting turnout in previous presidential elections. Wisconsin had 3.68 million registered voters as of Sunday.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett noted that a record 165,269 people had voted early as of Monday night, up from “a little over 52,000” in 2016.

Early voting constituted roughly two-thirds of the total votes cast in 2016, leading to less congestion than usual at several polling places on Tuesday.

“In a large-turnout election, there's always going to be some lines, but it seems like there's fewer than I can remember in previous elections," Wolfe said. “I'm sure that's partially because there are fewer voters that are left to participate today because there are so many who participated by absentee.”

Wolfe said some polling places had longer lines due to social distancing. Voters were being asked to keep a 6-foot distance between one another due to the coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsin has seen a steady rise in virus cases since September, breaking records for new cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the days leading up to the election.

Rebecca Kraft, a 41-year-old from Milwaukee, said she preferred the security of voting in person Tuesday rather than mailing her ballot.

“The slowdown and compromising of the U.S. Postal Service was a concern. I trust in the mail-in ballot system but there was just too much uncertainty,” Kraft said. “So I said ‘All right, if I’m feeling healthy, I am going to go do it at the polls just to make sure.’"

About 400 members of the Wisconsin National Guard were activated to work at polls across the state due to worker shortages. That's far fewer than the 2,400 who helped with the April presidential primary.

As polls opened Tuesday, Wolfe said the state had deployed about 200 Guard personnel to communities that needed poll workers.

“They are not there for crowd control,” Wolfe said. “They are not there for any sort of law enforcement capacity. They are poll workers. That has been made very clear to all of our local election officials, that they need to continue to utilize their contingency plans. In the event that there is any type of disturbance at their polling place, our local election officials are ready to contact their local law enforcement and engage that process.”

About 2,400 polling places were to be open statewide, with no significant closures like those seen during the presidential primary in April. In that election, Milwaukee opened just five of its nearly 190 polling sites due in part to a shortage of workers.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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